Using the best judgment

Arizona courts report more quickly for more reliable analyses

Twenty days behind bars for first-time offenders sounds like a shrewd way to fight drunk driving, right? Well, maybe not. That's what the Arizona legislature learned from a study commissioned to examine the issue before it became law.

Turns out that not only would this mandatory sentence prove burdensome to local jails, but it would also pack local courtrooms with more defendants seeking jury trials, creating a judicial backlog as they requested continuances.

SAS is a vital part of how we communicate what's happening in our courts.

Humberto Cisneros
Research and Statistics Specialist

This study was just one instance of how the Court Services Division of the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) uses SAS pore over several years of arrest and court data to provide information to lawmakers on a variety of matters that affect taxpayers and the state's courts. As a result, local and state officials can make decisions that keep their courts – and budgets – operating efficiently.

"The challenge for us is that we collect a lot of information that we must organize and give back to the court community," says Humberto (Bert) Cisneros, a research and statistics specialist within the Court Services Division. "SAS is a great help to us because of its strength in analyzing data and the great job it does of reporting."

Providing information to the legislature

In Arizona, every incorporated town and city must operate – and fund – a municipal court. And, similar to district courts in other states, Arizona also operates "justice courts" to hear felony pleas and hold probable cause and some civil hearings. Next up the ladder, the state superior court maintains a presence in each of the state's 15 counties, where the court has jurisdiction over felony trials and larger civil cases. Above that are the state court of appeals, which operates in Phoenix and Tucson, and the state supreme court – the highest authority in Arizona. The AOC serves all the state's courts, with the exception of federal and tribal courts.

Cisneros, along with fellow specialist Mark McDermott and research assistant Heather Darling, collect about 3,000 reports each year that contain data on case filings activity as well as information about court revenue and expenditures. They summarize the reports for a variety of uses by a variety of audiences.

For example, county officials had asked the legislature to create additional superior court judicial positions, whose salaries would be paid by the counties that hired them, except for judgeships, which are elected positions that carry an annual salary of $120,750. "Bert and I used SAS to analyze the data, including population statistics we obtain from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and show how many cases were currently being processed and whether another judicial position was justified," McDermott says. "They ended up creating new positions in four different counties, and four additional superior court judge positions came out of that data analysis."

Meanwhile, data analysis has revealed that one out of every 100 persons arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) has a second DUI charge pending. And of those, one-third have been convicted of drunk driving in the past.

Cisneros also used SAS to analyze approximately 32,000 DUI terminations in fiscal year 2004 in limited jurisdiction courts. The analysis showed that most justice and municipal courts on average adjudicate DUI charges within the 180 days allowed by administrative order. Resolving DUI cases more quickly is one of the year's top strategic agenda initiatives established by the newly appointed Arizona Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor, adds Cisneros.

Affecting local, state budgets

At the local level, courts rely on the speed of SAS to help them gain needed funding from county supervisors. "If a presiding judge is asked on Tuesday to make a presentation on the need for additional funding – and the board of supervisors wants to see how their court compares to courts in other counties so they can make a decision at that meeting – the judge relies on us for timely, accurate information," Cisneros says. "SAS lets us get that information to them in time."

The Court Services group also uses SAS to analyze how much money courts are actually collecting in relation to fines and penalties they are assessing. If a court is only collecting 40 cents out of every dollar it assesses, the state needs to know why. Arizona's geography can lead to some tricky situations. For instance, many offenders reside in neighboring Mexico, making it virtually impossible to collect fines from them. In addition, the counties that border neighboring states also have a difficult time collecting from traffic offenders who reside across the state line.

SAS runs 'behind the screens'

In addition to the 3,000 reports they collect from the courts, the Court Services group gets a wealth of data from AZTEC, a case-management software system used by most of the state's courts. AZTEC is a detailed database that includes all the information collected by arresting officers, such as driver's license numbers, dates of birth, names, addresses and states that issued each offender's license plate. "All of that information is stored in a data warehouse and spun off into data sets from which Bert and I can access and analyze data using SAS," McDermott says.

Since so many of the reports come in on paper, they have to be entered electronically and updated on screens that mimic the actual forms. And much of it has to be validated before it's entered. "Once we clean it up, then we use SAS to report on it," Cisneros says. "SAS is a vital part of how we communicate what's happening in our courts, because we use it to generate 700 pages of statistical reports every fiscal year."

These days, those reports are made available on the Web so that most ad hoc requests are now self-service. "That's cut down on the need for at least half a position," Cisneros says. "It cuts down on a lot of our work, which is great because we have so many other things we need to focus on, such as studying the DUI judicial process in limited jurisdiction courts."


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