May 26, 2021

Alvin, TX Launches Virtual Court Hearing System

In response to a COVID-19 state mandate that only permitted certain cases to be tried in person, Alvin, TX turned to GovOS Studio to build a new system that would allow them to facilitate virtual hearings.
Posted by Karl Pawlewicz

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the State of Texas mandated that defendants in trials must appear via virtual hearing if they have the capability. Only certain cases could be tried in person while municipalities worked to ensure the safety of their staff and citizens. The following is a discussion with Sonya Crates and Paul Salvo about how they used GovOS Studio to build a new system to facilitate virtual hearings. 

How did this project get started?

Paul Salvo, IT Manager for City of Alvin, TX 

In our effort to eliminate in-person intake and editing of paperwork, I asked Sonya to take a closer look at whether GovOS Studio could help us because we had had good success digitizing other forms with it in the past. Sonya took off running with it and immediately found a number of ways for us to bring this virtual hearing service online. 

Sonya Cates, CCM, CCII Court Administrator for City of Alvin, TX 

To initiate a virtual hearing, we first needed to capture a person’s email. Without their email, it would be impossible to communicate online and begin sending information back and forth. I used GovOS Studio right away to digitize the initial steps in our usual process – signing up for a docket, creating an account, making changes to an account. The simplicity of GovOS Studio means that I can create or edit a form and have it live online in seconds. 

Of course, all of this would have been much more difficult if we had tried to do it via paperwork. So often, handwritten forms come back incomplete or illegible, and for a virtual court to succeed, we need to be 100% certain we have the email, and we have it right. 

Now that I’ve digitized the intake process, there’s no guesswork, and I can make certain fields required, so a form can’t be submitted until that field contains information. Those forms come into a single email account for our court, and the court administrators can take all of the information in that form and input it into our database, so there’s not paper handling in any way, shape, or form.

What was the ‘ah-ha!’ moment for you?

Sonya Cates: When we received our first submission, it was like the light went off for us here. It’s just so apparent, so quickly, how much time and energy you’re going to save by digitizing processes.

Paul Salvo: The first form submission we got was someone signing up for virtual court. In fact, our first few form submissions were for virtual court. So as more of those started to come in, we started to think, “Ok, wow, what else can we do with this?”

Sonya Cates: And Studio is so intuitive, the more time you spend in the dashboard seeing what options are available, the more ideas you get on how you can bring more processes online.

So how did you expand your usage of the forms created in GovOS?

Sonya Cates: GovOS mentioned to us that there is an option to add QR codes to forms that we were creating. So we add QR codes to a lot of our forms that need to be submitted – citations for example – and where people used to go in-person to do business – at the court window for example.

For example, on orders that we give defendants, we added a QR code to that particular document, and they can just scan it and it takes them directly to a particular form they need to use to submit paperwork for their hearing. This way, we don’t have to provide a hyperlink, and they don’t have to type in a hyperlink – they can just go straight where they need to.

One thing that’s been beneficial, if someone comes in that qualifies for an in-person court appearance, if the judge needs paperwork during the hearing, the judge can tell them to scan a QR code and submit the documentation needed without having to hand over actual paperwork. This way, instead of taking the paper, making a copy, and scanning it in after the docket, we get it into the system in real-time right then and there, and we’re able to process the case faster.

How much have you saved by using GovOS?

Sonya Cates: The savings have been huge for us. I’m not even 15-20% into my budget yet for the year because I’m saving on postage, paper, man-hours, etc. And it’s given my team the bandwidth to focus on other projects, which has been immensely helpful.

And this process is now required, so the value per submission continues to go up because we get more submissions every single day.

How has this new system been received?

Sonya Cates: Our citizens (defendants) have been happy with it for the speed and convenience. Our Judges have said great things about GovOS because it improves the experience for the defendants. And our staff love, love, love it because it’s easier processing for them and everything is legible. No more guessing whether something is an ‘L’ or an ‘I’ or a ‘T.’ And no more chasing people down if they submit their wrong paperwork. With this new system, if something is submitted incorrectly, we can reject the submission right away with an explanation. That takes 1 minute, as opposed to 10 or more minutes in the old system.

Paul Salvo: I’ve already shared GovOS with other departments and let them know how well this system is performing. We’ve now done some tests for our Parks & Recreation department, like block party request forms and park rental forms, they’ve immediately seen the value in digitizing these processes.