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Virtual court appearances could diminish bias, improve efficiency

courtroom gavel
Flickr/Joe Gratz

The Next Idea

Traffic tickets and low-level misdemeanors aren’t supposed to ruin lives and cost taxpayers millions.

For most of these offenses, paying a fine or arguing a case before a judge should be a fairly straightforward, low-hassle matter.

Yet there are plenty of reasons why these minor violations end up as major problems.

People can’t afford to pay the fines. Taking off work in order to appear in court can be difficult, especially for people who have children, mobility issues, or inflexible jobs. Fears of bias – racial, economic, gender – in the courtroom can prevent some from even addressing their legal issues until they’re compelled to do so. And for a person who possesses even a tiny element of a lack of self-confidence (hint: we all do), courts are intimidating places. 

When people don’t deal with their traffic tickets or non-violent misdemeanor charges, no matter the reason, the situation can escalate quickly. Eventually bench warrants are issued, which can result in job loss, financial distress, and incarceration. These offenders are often not hardened criminals, and for too many, the punishment ends up far outweighing the crime.

Meanwhile, all that time the courts spend dealing with traffic violations and other minor offenses is time that is not being used to address the dangerous crimes and criminals that more seriously threaten public safety. This inefficiency also means a waste of tax dollars. For courts, the cost of punishing traffic scofflaws and non-violent offenders often ends up becoming more of a hindrance than a boon to the public’s well-being.

Making the courts more accessible can't fix all of our problems with the criminal justice system. Technology, however, can start to close the gap.

If appearing in court is a struggle for many Michigan residents, and their outstanding tickets are more of a costly hassle than they’re worth for Michigan courts, then it seems that the current system needs to change.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Technology can help make our courts more accessible, more efficient, and less discriminatory.

Currently, the technology used in Michigan courtrooms varies. All of them have court management systems to track cases from beginning to end and report them to the state. Many also use technology in the courtroom that allows, for example, video access to court proceedings. Where technology is rarely used, however, is extending the court to the citizen.

In courts that have a digital case review platform in place, someone who received a traffic ticket could handle the case directly online. It would be reviewed by a real judge or magistrate, and the matter could be resolved without needing to appear in person.

By extending the courts to citizens, we open a whole new avenue of access to justice. It no longer matters as much if a person is rich, poor, pink or green. People can ask friends and family for help and advice. They can think through their response to law enforcement, prosecutor or judge.

Technology offers the power to really level the playing field for everyone.

Making the courts more accessible can’t fix all our problems with the criminal justice system. Technology, however, can start to close the gap. By bringing the court directly to us, instead of making us come to court, more Michiganders can get their cases settled fairly and efficiently. Then, perhaps, a ticket for rolling through a stop sign will mean just that, and not something that could ruin a life.  

MJ Cartwright is CEO of Court Innovations based in Ann Arbor. 

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