Q: I want to develop an information system for my drug court. How do I start?

A: Here are some steps to take if you are developing or adapting an information system:

  • Identify the key players in your drug court who will use the information system. At a minimum, these probably include the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, on-site clinical staff and treatment providers.
  • Ask the key players: What information do you need? When do you need it? How would you like to see information displayed on a computer screen? Also ask about the functionality they need from an information system. For example, how will the information system alert drug court staff if a participant is not in compliance? Does the judge need to be able to record comments on individual cases? How many people need to have access to the system?
  • Based on these conversations, decide what information you need in your computer application. Is it already being collected? Who's collecting it? How are they collecting it? Determine which data are not being collected and if it is possible to develop procedures to begin collecting it.
  • Write a design document, which is a memo describing your information needs. Include information on drug court case flow and case load (e.g., approximately how many cases will the information system need to keep track of?); a list of data fields; functional requirements, sketches (hand-drawn is fine) of what the computer screens should look like; and any ‘business rules' (e.g., specifications about who has access to different pieces of information).
  • Enlist the help of an information systems professional to help you conduct an analysis of what type of information system you need. The analysis should answer the following questions: Based on your needs (as outlined in the design document) and budget, should you build your own information system or should you adapt an information system developed by another drug court? What will be your software and hardware needs? How long will it take to develop or adapt an information system? What will be your ongoing maintenance needs?

Q: How much does it cost to develop a drug court information system?

A: Below are some of the items to include in a budget for a drug court information system. The actual costs will vary depending on size and scope of your drug court and your technology needs. You will have a good understanding of this once you develop a design document (see previous question.)

  • Project management: Because of the number of people and steps involved in the development of a drug court technology system, it is wise to designate one individual to manage the entire project.
  • Programming: Whether you build your own computer system or adapt an existing system, you will have initial programming costs. It is also likely that you will have ongoing programming costs for modifications and/or enhancements once the initial programming is complete.
  • Maintenance: Ongoing maintenance of a computer system usually requires a system administrator who can handle matters such as account additions or changes.
  • Hardware: This may include personal computers for individual users and a server computer and related hardware to house the computer application.
  • Software: A drug court technology system typically consists of an underlying database and a front-end application that allows users to see or edit the data. Depending on the level of sophistication necessary for your drug court, these two components may be included in one software package (e.g. Microsoft Access) or may be different software packages (e.g., the Brooklyn Treatment Court system uses Sybase database software and Powerbuilder software for the front-end application.)
  • Training and technical support: Users typically need both initial training and ongoing support to use the information system correctly.

Q: Can I have the Brooklyn Treatment Court system for my drug court?

A: Yes. The system and its code were developed with public monies and are in the public domain. We are happy to send you the script for building the database and the code for the application.

However, adapting the Brooklyn Treatment Court system for your drug court will require significant resources. Our experience has been that considerable programming is required to customize the system to reflect your drug court's needs (e.g., different data fields, different data sources, etc.).

Q: How do drug court information systems handle issues of confidentiality and access to client information?

A: All drug courts should become familiar with federal and state regulations governing the release of information about an individual's criminal justice history and participation in substance abuse treatment programs. For treatment program participants supervised by the criminal justice system, confidentiality regulations usually allow the exchange of treatment-related information between affiliated drug court agencies, or with other criminal justice or community agencies. Once consent for release of information is provided within criminal justice settings, it generally cannot be rescinded until the participant graduates or leaves the program. Individuals who receive confidential information may disclose and use it only to carry out their official duties with respect to the release.

Once rules about who has access to what sets of information are understood, they should be clearly stated in a written document. The system administrator can use the written document to create security procedures for the information system. These usually involve setting up tiers of access and controlling access to the different tiers through individual accounts with passwords.

Q: Will drug court staff require training to use a drug court information system?

A: Yes. Once the information system has been developed, you should schedule training sessions for drug court staff who will use the system. The training will ensure that all users understand the features of the information system and have an opportunity to ask questions. You should keep training and support needs in mind when designing the information system. If the system is clear and easy to use, you will spend fewer resources on training and support.

Q: Are there best practices in drug court information systems that my system can adopt?

A: These are some of the features that can make drug court technology easier to use:

  • Use colors that make intuitive sense to users. For example, when displaying compliance information (attendance, drug test results) use green for good outcomes and red for bad outcomes.
  • Flashing buttons can draw the user's attention to important pieces of information.
  • Visual displays can make it easier to digest information, especially in a busy courtroom. For example, a picture of a beaker next to a date can indicate a drug test.
  • The Brooklyn Treatment Court system provides critical data/information to generate simple reports which can be designed to summarize how an individual is progressing.

Q: Are there other issues we should be thinking about as we design a drug court information system?

A: These are some additional items to think about early on:

  • Performance (i.e., processing speed).
  • Protection against data loss (i.e., system back-ups and contingency plans)
  • Screen appearance varying from PC to PC depending on local Windows settings.