TechShare issues spread to Ellis County

Bill Spinks, wspinks@waxahachietx.com

Court-appointed criminal defense attorneys in Ellis County are up in arms over the county’s use of a software program that they say is inefficient and costly. Members of the county bar gave commissioners an earful during a recent meeting of the Commissioners’ Court.

TechShare is the software that supports the county’s indigent defense system. It was distributed for use statewide by the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. Dallas County, which uses TechShare much more extensively within its judicial system, has had many well-documented problems with the software, with millions of taxpayer dollars spent.

Ellis County purchased TechShare through a $120,000 grant from the state of Texas in October 2018, and the county’s contract with TechShare has one more year to go before it expires.

County Judge Todd Little agreed that there were problems with the software. Little said the county last year spent almost $2 million in its indigent defense program, and acknowledged that a not-insignificant portion of that cost was simply due to delays caused by glitches in TechShare.

“We’re going to have to look at options for solutions … and we need to include the defense bar in that discussion,” Little said. “But as we go forward, that seems like an unsustainable-type cost.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry said he placed the item on the agenda at the request of multiple members of the bar.

Attorney Danny Freisner, a past president of the Ellis County Bar Association, told commissioners that he has been practicing criminal defense law for about 18 years and is using the TechShare program for court appointments.

“There are a lot of issues with this program, software, whatever label you like to put on it,” Freisner said. “It’s my understanding that these issues are being worked on, but I wanted to make the court aware of some of the problems we’re having with this service.”

One issue is a slow interface. Freisner said the browser response time is incredibly slow, which leads to a lag time in attorneys’ ability to bill, which in turn increases the cost to the county.

Another thing Freisner mentioned was that the program is unreliable.

“We’ve had lost billing entries and I’ve actually personally had an entire pay sheet simply disappear,” he said. “Fortunately my office keeps a backup, and we were able to re-create it, but I saw it one second, and the next it was forever gone. I’m still scratching my head over that one.”

TechShare also doesn’t allow much detail in informing a judge what has been done in a case, Freisner said. The fields in some entries are pre-determined, and some of the things an attorney does in a case don’t always fit within the script that’s been put in place by programmers.

Freisner said if the TechShare system goes down, court-appointed attorneys don’t get paid. “For some people, that’s a really big deal,” he said. “I know of one person who had to reschedule some medical procedures because of that.”

In summary, Freisner said TechShare is inefficient.

“Inefficiency leads to waste, and waste leads to lost money,” he said. “I’m telling you, this program is costing money if it doesn’t change. I think there are some changes which can be made and I look forward to those changes happening.”

In a follow-on address to commissioners, attorney J.D. Foster echoed a number of Freisner's complaints and told the court that TechShare requires attorneys to enter data twice — not only for this software but also for the in-office software that they already use to track time and generate invoices — at the cost of a great deal of time.

Foster added that the software is very user-unfriendly and tends to time itself out often, causing a complete loss of data input and costing still more time.

“It’s my firm opinion that if it were to be kept, it needs some pretty substantial overhauls and some pretty substantial fixes,” Foster said. “But ultimately I think it needs to be done away with.”

Members of the court concurred with judge Little in that the software is a problem that must be fixed.

“In this case today, what we’re talking about specifically is that we are having a situation where extra hours are required to deal with … inadequate software in regard to how we’re using it,” Perry said. “I’m really concerned we’re not where we need to be in the curve to look for a replacement system or maybe go back to a paper system.”

Added Little: “We’re not the only county experiencing the problem. And I’m sure if TechShare is having problems in Ellis County, they’re probably having problems statewide.”

Freisner said that attorneys were not consulted when the decision to implement TechShare was made, and asked that the court consult the bar the next time a software system is adopted.

“Right now in a lot of ways, paper is better,” Freisner said. “Paper doesn’t go down where no one can get paid. Everybody had a system that was efficient. I invite any one of you to please come by my office and let me demonstrate the debacle this program is to enter in one piece of data. I may have to do that multiple times on a case.”