Massachusetts court officials say it could take another year to make basic information for most criminal cases publicly available online, something required under court guidelines approved by the Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 and updated last year.
“I want to get us there,” said Jonathan Williams, who recently succeeded Harry Spence as the administrator of the state trial court system. “The technology has to be put in place.”
But Williams said it will take more time to make information available online for criminal cases in district courts statewide and the Boston Municipal Court, which together handle the vast majority of criminal cases, because court administrators need to convert the data to the same format used to track superior court cases.
“It is disappointing that this will take so long, and also difficult to understand why this is so,” said Robert Ambrogi, media attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. “Meanwhile, members of the public are left unable to access this information in any practical way, short of physically going to the courthouse where the records are kept.”
Currently, people must typically thumb through paper indexes, or ask a clerk for help, when they go to a courthouse. The courts say they hope to allow visitors to look up cases on computers inside courthouses starting early next year. By the end of next year, the information will also be available remotely via the Internet, officials say.
The online records accessible outside the courthouse will be restricted so users can only search for criminal cases by the case number or filing date. Searches by name, among other things, will not be possible. The users will also only be able to see basic data about the cases, rather than the full court documents.
The courts have limited the access to criminal data online after some debate. Journalists, librarians, and others argued the data should be fully available to the public, while many social justice advocates argued criminal records should be kept offline altogether for fear they could make it harder for defendants to obtain a job or place to live.
While the courts are still working to make more criminal case information available online, court officials say they have made significant progress in a long-running effort to update court technology.
Most of the upgrade was completed last year when the courts finally replaced 14 separate computer systems with a single system, called MassCourts, to track cases. The upgrade, which was originally supposed to take five years, was launched in 1996. It cost at least $75 million.
Williams said the overhaul is already making it significantly easier for court officials to compile data on the court’s sprawling operations. And they plan to continually add new features. “It will never be completed,” Williams said.