$132K reserve fund gone untapped for years
A short-supply of technology and training inside the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk's Office has created a series of problems that's led to wrongful arrests, cases set aside due to errors and residents temporarily losing their right to vote, officials and former employees say.
Now, the Knox County Commission wants to look into what role it can play to help solve some of the problems.
Officials during the board's Tuesday's work session plan to talk about auditing the office, and whether to use technology reserve funds to cover the costs. The account, according to county Finance Director Chris Caldwell, has gone uptapped for at least three years and has roughly $132,000 in it.
State law permits criminal court clerk offices to assess a $2 technology fee on a "per case basis." The money is then placed into an account separate from the county's general fund, which typically covers day-to-day governmental operations.
The office can use the money to replace hardware and other expenses tied to technology, including some salaries. Commission members also feel that they can use it to conduct a "technology and computer audit," which they said could point out some mistakes in the office and find ways to fix at least some of the problems.
"It's probably not going to be a cheap audit," said Commissioner Ed Shouse, who is spearheading the proposal. "But it's probably not going to be cheap paying these claims from people who were incarcerated or lost their jobs."
Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey did not return calls seeking comment on Thursday.
She's been under fire for weeks now after a WBIR Channel 10 investigation detailed problems inside her office that appear tied to poor training, outdated information, and her refusal to cooperate with other county departments.
Her workers often enter the wrong data into the records management system, lose crucial paperwork and provide defendants, prosecutors, and authorities with bad information, a 10News analysis found.
McCroskey's office is the official record keeper for Criminal Court, General Session Court, and Fourth Circuit Court.
"I've heard that there's a lot of improvement that can be made . . . and that much of the processing is still done manually," Shouse said. "I'm not computer expert, but there's got to be improvements to stop these snafus and stop these foul-ups, and get the paperwork done properly and get the warrants served properly, and dismissed properly as they should be."
A number of county officials who work with the office, and former criminal court clerk employees agree.
The county's Information Technology Department has developed functions that would better streamline operations, but many of McCroskey's employees either don't know how to use it, or aren't instructed to use it.
For example, in General Sessions Court, the clerks there have the ability to immediately update data in the Justice Information Management System, or JIMS, a recordkeeping system that officials use to make decisions on whether a defendant is up-to-date on payments, court appearances, or community service.
That, however, doesn't usually happen. The clerks typically record the information by hand and then enter the data electronically, in many cases, days later.
The lag-time increases the chance for error. It also creates a delay from when a defendant's case progresses, and when the progression is recorded into the system.
Officials, who work with the office but do not want to be identified due to the political nature of the situation, say the reasons are two-fold: Clerks aren't properly instructed on how to use the system, and a chaotic courtroom can often lead to an overwhelming workload.
Official also note that McCroskey has long been uncomfortable with new technology. She's cooperated at times, but prefers to use "a very pen-and-paper process."
To fix the problems, in part, she will have to work with the judges and other elected leaders to streamline the system, something officials said they're willing to do.
But, she also has to communicate her problems to the Information Technology Department, something she doesn't often do, officials said.
Former employees added that office improvements also will create a better environment for customers.
For example, many court clerk offices across the state can reinstate a suspended driver's licenses by electronically submitting the information to Nashville to be processed.
A former employee told WBIR that McCroskey's office often takes weeks to reinstate a license because of the extra steps necessary to mail or fax the information to Nashville.
She said in the time it takes to process one license suspension revocation, she would miss four to five phone calls from other customers.
Traffic violators also have a tough time finding out how to pay tickets online, since a third party administrator oversees payments and the website is not linked to the criminal court clerk's office.