If you went around the world asking people about the criminal justice processes and technology in their own country, a handful of adjectives would probably crop up time and again and I suspect they would be words like slow, traditional, inflexible, bureaucratic and maybe even outdated.
But in fact, it’s these perceptions themselves that are increasingly outdated. In countries worldwide, we’re seeing court and criminal justice systems actively embrace digital technologies, and start to seek out ways to use them to enhance the way they work and most importantly to improve the citizen experience.
The result? In the same way as technology has evolved in policing, we’re now seeing a similar step-change across criminal justice.
As this shift gains momentum, we’re seeing opportunities for digital technologies – when applied correctly – to improve the criminal justice process in three main ways.
First, it makes them faster – which in turn helps them become more effective and efficient. Higher speed to justice helps to improve the experience and outcomes for all the individuals involved in the system as well as reducing costs to the taxpayer.
Second, it makes them fairer. Fairness is a key tenet that should underpin any justice system, and technology can improve transparency and access so the fairness is clear to all.
Third, it makes them friendlier. For most people, appearing in court – whether as a defendant or witness – is one of the most difficult experiences of their lives. If you’re attending as a witness, do you really want to sit in a cold waiting-room beforehand with the defendant’s friends or family? Again, technology can help in making the citizen experience more positive for all.
I was lucky enough to speak at an international forum on online courts attended by representatives from many different countries. While all three of the benefits mentioned above were highlighted during the presentations and debates, a cross-cutting theme also came consistently to the fore: that realizing these benefits doesn’t just require automation of existing court processes – but transformation of the entire system end-to-end.
What’s more, through this transformation it’s possible to create a degree of openness and transparency that truly gives power back to the citizen. And looking across the world, we’re seeing justice systems’ pursuit of this goal through digital technologies taking many forms.
One of the most prevalent is the creation of dashboards to track how the system is performing, pinpoint blockages or issues and indicate ways to address them. Many countries are setting up dashboards that not only show the current state of the criminal justice system, but also to help predict where bottlenecks may emerge down the line.
Another area of innovation is online courts, which take two forms. First, virtual courts that use video links to bring together the various actors – defendants, witnesses, counsel, judges and more – in a flexible way. And second, online courts where the parties upload information electronically for the judge to deliberate and reach a decision on.
Meanwhile, in the physical courtroom itself, we’re seeing growing use of emerging technologies. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) can help make tasks like transcription quicker and simpler, and also provide decision support in areas like sentencing guidelines, next best action, and explaining the likely outcome of different options to plaintiffs.
In beginning such initiatives, criminal justice leaders have been able to learn several valuable lessons. One is the importance of putting the citizen’s experience at the center of the transformation – meaning not just defendants, but all the participants and stakeholders. Another is the need for a clear vision and roadmap to deliver the targeted benefits, backed and executed by committed leadership.
It’s also vital to embrace a mindset based on careful and controlled trialing with an ability to learn and adapt – recognizing that the systems and processes will continue to evolve with both technology and citizen’s needs.
However, it’s the final lesson being learned that’s the most important of all. The bedrock of any justice system is trust and legitimacy. And it’s vital that any move to modernize the system bolsters these very traditional attributes rather than undermining them. In a criminal justice environment where so much appears to be changing, the vital underpinning of trust must remain constant – or the whole transformation will be put at risk.