Don’t worry…it was just a software bug that sent you to jail

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We’ve all dealt with our fair share of software bugs.  They’re annoying, they waste our time, and sometimes they even cost us money.  But what if technological errors caused you to be arrested on a nonexistent warrant, accidentally registered as a sex offender, or mistakenly convicted of a felony?  That would make a decent plot for a science fiction dystopian novel, but it’s also actually happening to thousands of people around the country right now.

This nightmare scenario involves a docket management software called Odyssey Court Manager, developed by Tyler Technologies.  This software was implemented by the Alameda County, California judicial system in December of 2016 to replace a decades-old legacy program.  The county’s honeymoon phase with its shiny new software system didn’t last long: just weeks after implementation, it became clear that problems with the program were leading to wrongful arrests, sex offender registrations, convictions, and so forth.  There have been similar reports in Shelby County, Tennessee, which also implemented Odyssey in late 2016.  Aggrieved Tennesseans recently filed a class action civil rights lawsuit against the county and the software provider.

As the Odyssey story is still developing, it isn’t clear whether this is a case of user error, poorly written software, shoddy implementation, or all of the above.  Regardless of fault, though, systematic software errors in the administration of criminal justice pose serious constitutional problems.

I could not be a bigger fan of process automation, especially in the legal system.  However, automation should have the effect of reducing error rates, not increasing them.  My theory is that the Odyssey conundrum is the result of a clash in values and attitudes underlying the tech industry versus the justice system.  On the one hand, technology favors efficiency, and in our cloud-based world, releasing a product with bugs isn’t usually a big deal, because they can be worked out in real time.  On the other hand, the administration of justice favors accuracy of result.  The software bugs that we’re used to tolerating in other spheres of life aren’t acceptable when we’re dealing with constitutional rights.

The legal system will only become more dependent on various technologies, and that’s a good thing.  As that happens, though, it will be all the more important for those responsible for the administration of justice (lawyers, that’s you!) to band together and figure out how to make sure those technologies are reliable.

Any ideas?  Innocent dog is counting on you!

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