Multimillion dollar Dallas County software project faces new delays

Dallas County judges and attorneys are voicing their mounting frustrations with outdated courtroom software, after finding out a county-approved project to replace the system is months behind schedule with mounting costs.

Right now, day-to-day operations at the Dallas County courthouse are bogged down by unwieldy programs that make it possible for mistakes to fall through the cracks.

Judge Rick Magnis started serving in Dallas County in 1988. Fast forward to 2016 and Magnis is still using the same software.

"It was old when I started in 1988,” Magnis said.

During one of Fox 4’s interviews with Magnis, he happened to catch a serious, but typical error. A convicted sex offender had previously failed to show up to court, but that was not showing up on Magnis’ computer.

"It could affect my judgment,” Magnis said. “It would certainly be good to know that a defendant has a history of not showing up."

In another case, Magnis couldn’t see all of a defendant’s five felony convictions at one time.

“Information is getting buried in the system," he said.

North Texas attorney Pete Schulte said software problems are keeping his clients in jail for days after they’re cleared for release.

“Dallas County is having to pay for extra meals, pay for additional jailers to make sure they're controlled, when all they have to do is have a system that says, alright, here it is, bond's been set, posted, release," Schulte said.

It became obvious years ago that the system needed to be replaced. What wasn’t obvious was how, exactly, to go about developing new software.

That’s when Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell came up with the idea behind TechShare.

“One thing we saw replicating itself in every county, is us being held hostage by IT vendors," said Commissioner Mike Cantrell.

Dallas County, led by Cantrell, decided to develop and build its own software package rather than hire a private contractor. Cantrell believes owning the software will save taxpayers money, and he is counting on other counties to share the cost of building and maintaining the system.

“…Why not have a system, no matter if you're a large medium or small county, everyone can have the same excellent system, share the operation of that,” Cantrell said.

The software package is being developed by the Texas Conference of Urban Counties (CUC), a non-profit based in Austin. Through CUC, Dallas, Tarrant and Travis Counties originally hired a vendor called Amcad to develop the software for them, but the company went bankrupt.

The district clerk at the time wrote an email after that event. The e-mail said, “Incredible. What we have is the shell of Amcad’s undeveloped product. We spent $11 million for it.”

Cantrell admits the delays were unfortunate.

“We were already so far down the road, it would have been absolutely stupid to back up,” Cantrell said. “That's why we didn't back up."

After that setback, a document circulated among top Dallas County administrators last year, showing early concerns about Travis County backing out.

The week after that document was shared, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins asked Commissioner Theresa Daniel if Travis County was indeed considering backing out.

The next day, she wrote back and told Jenkins his information was false.

Fox 4’s Lori Brown asked Daniel whether she was aware of those concerns when she wrote her response to Jenkins.

“That was the information I had at the moment,” Daniel said.

Ultimately, Travis County bailed on the project even though it means losing the $3.3 million it had already invested.

Fox 4’s Lori Brown asked Daniel if TechShare can still work with only Tarrant and Dallas Counties participating.

“Of course,” Daniel said. “Why wouldn’t it be able to work?”

Brown replied, “The original plan was to have a lot of funding partners.”

Daniel replied, “And by creating the product, we will be able to sell it. You’re right.”

“So you’re banking on those other counties still coming back?” Brown asked.

“Yes,” Daniel replied.

 Fox 4 uncovered a 2014 confidential memo sent months before the final vote in February 2015 to approve TechShare. The memo showed Dallas County’s implementation costs were increased by an additional 200 percent.

The memo also showed that the county-built system would cost $26.5 million over 10 years compared to a private vendor’s estimated cost of $6.7 million.

Before that February 2015 vote, Dallas County’s 31 judges wrote an unprecedented letter to express concerns.

Fox 4’s Lori Brown asked Magnis if he thinks it’s a good idea for the county to be in the software business.

“Well in the letter we wrote, all the judges, every single criminal judge in this building agreed that it's not,” he replied.

The launch date for TechShare Courts is delayed to May 2017.

“We’re working on a solution as fast as we can,” said Daniel.

Magnis calls the delay “serious” because “mistakes can be made,”

Cantrell told Fox 4, part of the reason Dallas County decided to stick with TechShare is because it already developed and implemented its own juvenile court system software that other software companies said they could not integrate with their systems.

250 Texas counties are currently using the TechShare juvenile system.