LOS ANGELES (CN) — At first blush, a cartoon character seems an unlikely remedy to combat lines to pay traffic tickets at courthouses in a metropolis of 10 million people speaking more than 300 languages — lines that often stretched outside the courthouses and took more than three hours to get through.
But along came Gina, a virtual traffic assistant on the Los Angeles Superior Court’s website. She has long brown hair, a peachy complexion and wears a purple jacket.
“May I help you?” Gina says in a speech bubble.
After clicking on an animated video, she guides her guests through the process of paying their ticket in one of six languages, including English, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.
At the beginning of the decade, with the California economy still stuttering, the Los Angeles County court — with roughly 400 judges and a constituency of 10 million people — rejected the internet as an avenue for those who had committed minor transgressions.
In laying off hundreds of employees in 2010, the Los Angeles court clerk at that time pointed to the enormous volume of human traffic going through the region’s courthouses. In the metro courthouse south of downtown, 5,000 people had paid tickets before noon, said the clerk, James Clark.
But he rejected the internet as an alternative, based on the region’s culture. Many within the huge Hispanic population did not have computers, he said. They paid cash and wanted a receipt. So they stood in line.
Then along came two women, one the creation of programmers and the other a veteran court administrator.
When Sherri Carter was appointed as clerk of the court in 2013, she pushed the court system of 38 courthouses to embrace current technology.
The court’s presiding judge, Carolyn Kuhl, has backed that push.
“People were waiting an average of 3 1/2 hours for their traffic tickets,” Kuhl said in an interview. “If they came toward the end of the day and the staff wasn’t able to get to their matter by closing time, they had to come later.”
Speaking in her chambers on the second floor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Hill Street, Kuhl said Gina, the virtual assistant that Carter has promoted, is helping ease that burden on individuals and families, cutting wait times to between 8 to 12 minutes.
The pairing of the clerk and Gina turned out to be a mutually beneficial.
Gina was named as one of the 2016 National Association for Court Management’s top-ten court technology solutions. At the group’s conference in Pittsburgh this month, Carter was also given the 2016 Distinguished Service Award from the National Center for State Courts.
National Center for State Courts president Mary McQueen commended Carter for what she accomplished in Los Angeles after the financial crisis of 2008.
“The fact that she’s making in-roads and innovations within the challenge of diminished resources is incredible,” McQueen said in a telephone interview.
McQueen said Carter has shown the “contribution court executives and court leaders can make,” and said sometimes administrators are “undervalued or not recognized.”
Judge Kuhl suggested it was all in a day’s work at her court.
“It’s a wonderful thing that she’s recognized nationally for what she does here every day,” Kuhl said of Carter.
The presiding judge gave the clerk credit for a wide range of initiatives at the court aimed at those who speak in languages other than English.
Testifying to the sprawling nature of the Los Angeles court system in the county’s 4,751 square miles, the court has put in place an interpreter service at 79 counters.
During a visit to the Stanley Mosk court last week, Courthouse News saw how the service works in a civil filings office lit by honeycomb fluorescents and lined with warm, brown sugar-colored panels.
The room reverberated with the electronic garble of receipt machines, the disembodied voices of clerks, and the bureaucratic click-clack of staplers fastening court papers.
A court employee at a filing window explained that when visitors who don’t speak English arrive, he shows them an “I speak” card that allows them to identify their first language.
From his counter, the employee can dial through to a professional interpreting service. He said that he stays on the line with one handset and passes another handset beneath his window so that visitors can explain the nature of their inquiry through an interpreter.
When the reporter asked the employee his name and how many visitors on average use the service each day, an accompanying public information officer interrupted the interview and told the reporter he could not ask such questions.
“We generally do not allow staff to be interviewed directly,” court spokeswoman Mary Hearn clarified in an email. “It is the role of the public information office to provide information to the media.”
The court offers remote interpreters in 200 languages during business hours at all of its courthouses. The “I speak” card included offerings in Cantonese, Hmong, Kurdish, Mon, Latvian and Norwegian.
In another initiative also aimed at non-English speakers, those who are either parties to or witnesses in upcoming eviction hearings can request an interpreter through the court’s website.
Judge Kuhl said it was possible to improve the way Angelenos interact with the court and hold the budget in line.
“These are things that are not only a service to the public but also a number of them are actually saving the court money.”
The award was given to Carter in recognition of her work at the Civil Justice Improvements Initiative Committee. The committee will report on how state courts across the nation can make improve they way they handle civil litigation.
Gina was created by third-party vendor SitePal and costs $2,499 per year to run, according to Hearn.
The interpreter service is run by Language Select. The court pays for the cost of the calls, which are 99 cents per minute, Hearn added.
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