I’m rooting for an obscure line item in the Texas budget

The Texas legislative session kicked off this week, and lawmakers have a $32.7 billion surplus to work with. What are they going to do with it?

I’ve got an idea. It’s just an IT line item in a budget request, and it would only cost 0.018% of that surplus.

But it’s meaningful, and it could help a lot of people.

Let me introduce you to the Texas Office of Court Administration’s project called “Replace Judicial Branch Legacy System – Case-Level Data.”

Nestled in a 179 page legislative appropriations request, this project implements a new IT system to manage data from the courts:

This is a significant upgrade that creates a lot of big wins for the legal, policy, and research communities who use court data.

I’ll get to those wins in a minute.

First, a bit of background about this project.

Currently, the management of court data happens at the county level. Each county has a clerk that collects and handles court data. There are 254 counties in Texas. That creates 254 points of accountability for data collection.

Every county sends a monthly report to the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA). OCA is a state agency that provides “resources and information for the efficient administration” of the Texas Judicial Branch. This monthly report has aggregate case counts:

Partial example of a misdemeanor activity report from OCA. Currently, they only collect case counts by category, without any other case-level detail.

Case counts explain how many cases came in, and how many cases were resolved. They are the main metrics for pretty much every court in the country.

But there is so much more that can be done with the case-level details collected by the counties that are not reported to OCA. Case-level details include things like the amount claimed in a debt collection case. Or whether someone’s deferred adjudication was completed successfully or revoked. Or where evictions are happening this month.

How this became a budget request.

OCA has been collecting aggregate case counts for years. Advocates and lawmakers have introduced ideas that would support OCA collecting case-level data. OCA didn’t have the system capabilities at the time, and these ideas did not advance.

It took an unfortunate error and a tragedy to prompt this budget request.

In 2017, Sutherland Springs became the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. The perpetrator entered a church, killed 26 people and wounded 22 others.

Authorities soon discovered that he should not have been able to buy the weapons.

He received a court martial from the Air Force on a domestic violence charge five years prior. But the Air Force didn’t report the conviction to the FBI, so it didn’t appear in the background check database.

By 2018, this event had a strong influence on Gov. Greg Abbott’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan. They wanted to make sure that a reporting gap would never happen within Texas courts by creating a statewide case management system:

The State of Texas produced a School and Firearm Safety plan in 2018. It included a recommendation to create a statewide case management system to assist with background checks.

But to make this a reality, every county needed a system to collect data. Not all counties had the desire or the funds for a case management system.

This is changing. In 2021, OCA committed to providing all counties with a case management system. They signed master services agreements with three vendors and created a program to serve smaller counties.

Caldwell County, Texas has a population of about 46,000 people and qualifies for support services from OCA. This is what their courthouse looks like.

Collecting good data on the ground is the first step.

Now OCA needs a system to manage case-level data from across the state. This involves a data warehouse, high quality APIs, and data analysis tools.

A statewide system is a big win for researchers and policymakers.

There are two sets of reasons why OCA needs a statewide management system.

The first set of reasons is in OCA’s legislative appropriations request. They talk about being able to answer questions from policymakers about court activities. They also talk about eliminating cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

These are worthwhile reasons, and serve the interests and mission of OCA. After all, this is the agency that has to field all the questions about court performance.

Here are the second set of reasons why OCA needs a statewide management system. It involves stakeholders in the community who all share a common interest in court data.

This is what a statewide case-level data system enables:

  • Clearing criminal records. The rules for record clearing are complex, but the necessary ingredients exist in case-level court data. In Harris County, Beacon Law identified hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible to clear their record. And if laws change, statewide data will be essential for bulk record clearing.
  • Measuring evictions in neighborhoods and schools. Eviction research can reveal powerful trends that impact communities. Case-level court data can unlock new areas of evictions analysis over time. It can also help with short-term monitoring during a disaster.
  • Tracking the impact of consumer debt lawsuits on communities. Using court data in Michigan, a recent study found racial disparities in debt collection lawsuits. These findings corroborate a ProPublica study from 2015.
  • Protecting consumers from illegal debt lawsuits. This involves understanding the practices of the most active plaintiffs. According to the Debt Collection Lab, the top 10 plaintiffs account for two thirds of the debt cases in Harris County. This type of volume can lead to consumer abuse when left unchecked.
  • Seeing what the courts are doing. Lots of people like to talk about crime. But what types of cases end up getting prosecuted? How successful are those prosecutions? Court data helps us answer those questions.
  • Improving reentry programs. In a recent survey, Texas ranked #48 in restoring rights and opportunities after an arrest or conviction. In a separate study of the best and worst states for returning citizens, Texas didn’t even have enough data to be considered. Even the School and Firearm Safety Action Plan said that this project could help “analyze the effectiveness of reentry and diversion programs.” With almost 80,000 people coming home in Texas every year, we have a lot of work to do improving reentry programs and services. Statewide court data can help.

These are just a few of the most obvious examples of how statewide, case-level data can be useful to researchers. 

What to do about it?

If you live in Texas, you can write your house and senate representatives in support of OCA’s legislative appropriations request.

I’m also interested in hearing from people who use court data in their work anywhere in the United States. If that’s you, please drop me a note!

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about data. He founded January Advisors, and serves on the board of two Houston nonprofits. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.