Digital Literacy and Law Enforcement

INTRODUCTION:

Policing organizations in Canada have an onerous responsibility with respect to providing disclosure in criminal cases. The courts have decreed that police must provide “full and frank” disclosure of all relevant information collected during the course of a criminal investigation to the accused party’s defence team, so that the accused may answer to the charges.

The disclosure of major investigations such as homicides, sexual assaults, and frauds almost always involve volumes and volumes of data. When provided in paper form, the disclosure of many of these investigations can fill the back of a moving truck.

Even in 2010, police are still using paper disclosure as the standard. In fact, defence teams can demand paper disclosure in cases where some other form of disclosure is provided. Paper disclosure is cumbersome to transport, difficult to store, and can take months and months to process and analyze.

The purpose of this paper is to apply the research of Teresa Dobson and John Willinsky on Digital Literacy to support the use of Supertext software as an alternative to paper disclosure for criminal cases.

ANALYSIS:

“Supertext” is a computer based program which allows a Crown Brief to be prepared electronically and burned to a CD or DVD. The program has a magnificent indexing system and a search function that can take the reader to a section of the document and conduct searches of words and other data which take the reader to that searched field in the blink of an eye. Supertext permits the author to store truckloads of data on one or more DVD’s at little cost (compared to paper). The document could be easily carried in a briefcase, is easily copied, and can be viewed on desktops, laptops, IPads, etc. While it would seem to be academic that everyone in the Justice field would be embracing this technology – quite the opposite is occurring. There is significant resistance to utilizing the technology and it is extremely underutilized in field. How can this be when, as asserted by Dobson and Willinsky, “digital literacy carries with it the potential for a wider, more global access to knowledge”?

Could it be something as simple as the luminous character of computer display impacting the reader so much as to dissuade a reader from this format? As Dobson and Willinsky assert, “there is some question as to whether screen reading might itself pose a literacy challenge. Certainly eyestrain has been linked to reading on computer” (pp. 5-6). I doubt that this is the issue. In my opinion reading volumes and volumes of print material can also create significant eyestrain.

Could it be that, as Dobson and Willinsky suggest, that “print allows a range of opportunities for interactivity in the form of the addition of intertext or paratext, not least of which is the footnote that acts as a stepping off point into source texts”? This could certainly be part of the issue. I know from experience that defence lawyers do dissect disclosed materials, particularly witness statements, and often insert their own comments, questions and challenges at various points on the document to assist them in preparing their defence. I believe that this issue could easily be overcome and that similar notations could be made in digital form utilizing Supertext, perhaps even with some type of prompting by the program to remind the reader of the added notation.

With respect to comprehension comparison across hypermedia and paper, Dillon and Gabbard (1998) report that the majority of experimental findings of controlled, quantitative studies demonstrate no significant difference. So comprehension is likely not an issue, although studies by Lehto, Zhu and Carpenter (1995) and Marchionini and Crane (1994) presenting findings that support the speed and power of electronic searching. This is certainly valuable insight in the context of Supertext – as it cannot be denied how valuable electronic searching would be for defence lawyers faced with large amounts of word documents. In fact, Dillon and Gabbard (1998) conclude that “hypermedia appears to be best suited to tasks involving substantial amounts of large document manipulation, searching through large texts for specific details, and comparison of visual details among objects.” To that end, Supertext would offers significant advantages and might even be considered a Panacea for the analysis of voluminous disclosure. Dobson and Willinsky speak to the effects of networked (multidirectional) text environments and state that proponents of hypermedia feel that it was “destined to improve comprehension and motivation because it mimics the associative processes of the mind.” (pp. 7) In the context of Crown Briefs, the information may certainly be easier to process and digest in digital form. Further support for this can be found in the work of Rand Spiro and his team positing that readers “are better able to follow connections in a semantic sense, and that the thematic “crisscrossing” afforded by hypermedia documents may encourage readers to apply their knowledge in a more flexible manner.” (pp. 7)

A final benefit of Supertext as a disclosure medium is its ability to provide document maps or “fisheye” overviews. Dobson and Willinsky suggest that these “literacy supports are advocated because they enable readers to discern, variously, the organization of content, the extent of the text and their own location in the text.” This feature is extremely valuable to the reader of a Crown Brief on a complex case due to the detail that these investigations go into – particularly in the area of scientific evidence.

So, why hasn’t this technology become the standard when its benefits seem clear. Although it is clichéd, the wheels of Justice turn slow. I can only surmise that this technology has not caught hold in the Justice field, but when it does – it will do so with a vengeance. It will become the standard rapidly and it will cause police organizations that have lagged in the area of this technology to catch up really fast. I would suggest they start embracing the technology sooner than later.

REFERENCES:

Dobson, T. and Willinsky, J. retrieved from http://pkp.sfu.ca/files/Digital%20Literacy.pdf on November 20, 2010

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One Response to Digital Literacy and Law Enforcement

  1. coffeys says:

    Could the reason that the use of ‘Supertext’ software has not been widely adopted be simply that the people (lawyers) are not trained in its use and have little time in their busy lives to become comfortable with the software? I believe this to often be the case with teachers (too little training, support, and time) and wonder if that is also true for lawyers. Shannon

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