Allowing counties to store court records electronically could save thousands

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A new law could help counties in Pennsylvania modernize the way they store and preserve court records, by giving them the option to store those records electronically, not just through paper copies or microfilm.

"It will save them significant tax dollars," said state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon.

Allegheny County has estimated it could see annual savings of $230,000 a year in storage costs.

Mr. Smith's proposal to update methods by which counties could store judicial records, originally in a Senate bill he sponsored, was added as an amendment to a House bill that was approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett last month. The act takes effect Friday.

"I really think most counties are going to choose to opt in, in terms of digital storage," Mr. Smith said.

State law has required court records be stored either on paper, or using a format such as microfilm. Kate Barkman, director of Allegheny County's Department of Court Records, told Allegheny County Council members earlier this year that the requirement is costly and requires large amounts of storage space, for a department that already scans and saves electronically every piece of paper it receives.

Allegheny County stores its records in the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, in a storage facility on the North Side, in Bradys Bend Underground Storage in East Brady, Clarion County, and through the Iron Mountain Inc., storage company.

William McKain, the county manager, told council members that Mr. Smith's proposal was one of his top legislative priorities for Harrisburg. The proposal also had the strong support of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, and commissioners for Montgomery County, near Philadelphia.

The law won't allow counties to go electronic instantly, however.

"The change essentially means that in the future, after the proper standards, guidelines, and procedures are developed by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, and approved by the state County Records Committee, the judicial system would not have to maintain a human-readable copy of its permanently valuable records," according to David Shoff of the Pennsylvania State Archives, part of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

The commission, which is based in Harrisburg, will work with the Administrative Office to develop standards to digitally retain permanent records, he said in an email. The approved format, generally, for retaining permanent documents will be a type of PDF format, Mr. Shoff said. Additional standards, such as regarding storage, security and methods to prevent tampering, are still being finalized, he said.

The new law won't affect non-judicial records, such as those kept by county offices that store deeds and wills, he said.

But Mr. Shoff said he believed it would apply to older records, as well as new ones, meaning that if the judicial records are in the correct electronic format, then the paper copies can be destroyed, with the commission's oversight and permission.

Ann Thornburg Weiss, clerk of courts for Montgomery County, near Philadelphia, said she welcomed the electronic option.

"It has been very frustrating for governmental offices like ours, which handles approximately 15,000 new criminal cases annually, to have to ... microfilm documents from completed cases that have already been electronically scanned into a document imaging system," she said in an emailed statement. "That's a lot of money spent for storage and filming of documents that are already easily available in electronic form."

As for when counties will be able to embrace electronic archives, if they choose, that remains to be seen. A spokeswoman for Allegheny County said the Court Records department is awaiting guidance from the state.

A spokesman for the Administrative Office said the agency has been consulting with the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

Mr. Shoff said the commission is unsure of a target date for completion of the necessary steps, including gathering information on best practices, developing standards and having them approved and then conveying them to county record keepers.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707

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