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Justice system integration: on the threshold of a new era.

A federal law effective this year authorizes needed funding for justice information system integration and signifies a historic turning point for justice agency integration efforts.

Last fall, with little fanfare, Congress passed, and the president signed, historic legislation that will vastly improve the business of justice and ultimately enhance public safety. Beginning this fiscal year, Public Law 105-251, which includes the Crime Identification Technology Act of 1998, authorizes $250 million per year for each of the next 5 years ($1.25 billion total) for state grants to promote the integration of justice system information and identification technology.

The new law will "permit all components of criminal justice (law enforcement, courts, corrections and prosecution) to share information and communicate more effectively on a real-time basis," says Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), principal author of the bill. The Technology Act also will provide funding for grants to states so they can participate in major national programs, such as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, the National Crime Information Center 2000 and the National Incident-based Reporting System Project.(1) In order to receive a grant under the new law, states must create statewide information-sharing system strategies developed by state and local officials who oversee, plan and implement integrated information technology.

"The new law is particularly opportune at this time," says Gary R. Cooper, executive director of SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics. "More than any other time in history, the nation's justice community is at a cross-road with respect to technology implementation and information systems integration." Recent and unprecedented national initiatives, combined with growing user acceptance and public demand for criminal justice information, are driving efforts across the country to exchange and integrate data and information among an expanding array of justice agencies, including law enforcement, prosecution, defense, courts, corrections, probation, parole and social services. Adequate and coordinated funding focused specifically on such integration efforts, however, has been a perpetual problem.

The Technology Act includes the first sizable grant program to support justice information systems integration, overcoming one of integration's main obstacles. Its passage represents the culmination of several major events in this decade that have placed justice system integration near the top of local, state and federal government information technology (IT) priority lists.

The New Frontier

Justice information systems integration is not a new idea - Agencies throughout the nation increasingly recognize the importance of integrating information systems to share critical data, documents, images and key transactions. State and local jurisdictions are actively developing plans and programs for integrated justice information systems.

The extent to which agencies are integrating depends on a number of variables, not the least of which is the definition and scope of the individual integration project. In many cases, integration takes the form of a single agency integrating its many information systems, such as a law enforcement agency integrating its records management system with computer-aided dispatch, detective case management, property and evidence tracking, mug shot imaging, booking and live-scan fingerprint systems. Significant improvements in efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved when internal information systems communicate critical data in a timely manner. Other projects have taken a broader approach, integrating information systems between separate agencies with different functions that need to share key pieces of data at critical points in the justice process. In Harris County, Texas, for example, the justice information system integrates law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, corrections, juvenile court and others.

It is the latter project - the one that attempts to integrate the business systems of different agencies with unique information needs - that has posed the most substantial challenge to justice agencies. This challenge has been complicated by the lack of coordinated and continuous funding; a plethora of existing systems play vitally important roles in agency operations, but fail to communicate with other systems; and political, personality and separation of power issues and conflicts. The result in years past has been a smattering of successful integration projects across the country - And a near-equal number of failures.

Whether we are prepared or not, numerous forces are driving local and state justice agencies toward integrated systems as we approach the 21st century, and justice agencies are committed to coordinating efforts, pursuing standardized approaches and learning from past successes and failures. Several key events during this decade are responsible for the drive toward integration.

Technology: The Enabler

Technology provided the jump start to effective integration. Rapid advances in information system and identification technologies have steadily driven justice agencies toward automating and integrating their information systems.

"With the advent of distributed network computing, open systems architecture and powerful database applications, information systems integration can be accomplished faster, cheaper and easier - with more robust applications - than ever before," notes David J. Roberts, deputy executive director of SEARCH.

Although justice agencies collect much of the same data, albeit for different uses, they no longer must agree on identical hardware and software systems to achieve integration. Roberts suggests that, "Internet technology, middleware applications and data warehousing solutions, to name a few, allow individual agencies to acquire and maintain hardware and software components that best meet their operational needs, but also allow participation integration in an open network." Today's technology can easily accommodate and incorporate crucial data stored in existing, older systems into the integrated system.

The Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CICJIS), which went live in May 1998, uses state-of-the-art technology, including advanced middleware products, to integrate existing statewide criminal justice information systems (including the Department of Public Safety, Colorado District Attorneys' Council, Department of Corrections, Judicial Branch and Department of Human Services). "By allowing the individual agencies to maintain information systems that meet their daily, operational business needs, and accomplishing integration through linkages and data transfer, we were able to overcome the concern that agencies must sacrifice functionality to participate in the integrated system," says Dave Usery, CICJIS chief information officer.

Users Demand More

Justice practitioners have become comfortable with computers in their agencies and recognize the functionality that effective information systems can provide. This has caused a paradigm shift in the industry from developing computer systems merely to house data, to designing robust, interactive information systems that work proactively to effectively target crime and improve decision-making.

Police agencies use incident data to map criminal activity and analyze trends for better resource allocation; judges access complete, accurate and up-to-the-minute record information on defendants to make informed bail and sentencing decisions; and correctional agencies use offender information to make appropriate housing and release decisions. For users, data-sharing is an essential tool for the effective administration of justice.

Public Expectations and Demands

As the public becomes more savvy in its use of computers and the Internet, it expects justice agencies are likewise taking full advantage of the latest technology. It is only when a tragic crime occurs that may have been prevented by the sharing of key information that the public even becomes aware of the lack of data-sharing among justice agencies.

Melvin J. Carraway, superintendent of the Indiana State Police, and Lester C. Miller, special counsel to the superintendent, wrote an article last year aptly titled Integrated Law Enforcement: "You Mean They Are Not Doing It Now?" The authors note, "The public has certain expectations regarding how law enforcement fights crime. When they are informed of this [Indiana's] project to integrate law enforcement, one of two responses is invariably given: 'You mean they are not doing it now?' or 'Well, it's about time.'"

Federal and State Reporting Requirements

Public demand for crime control has given rise to a number of federal and state laws authorizing access and use of criminal justice information, in addition to authorizing access to criminal history background information for noncriminal justice decision-making, other laws have established registries and notification programs for certain types of offenders, such as sexual predators. These well-intentioned laws assume a level of automation and integration that is only just emerging in justice agencies throughout the nation.

Realizing the burden placed on justice systems and the critical need for integrated systems, many states have reacted by establishing steering committees or advisory groups charged with coordinating integration efforts. At least 20 states have established such bodies, and at least 15 states have statutes governing their existence.

Attorney General's Strategic Funding Initiative

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has recognized the importance of integrated information systems, strategic planning and coordination. As she pointed out during the 1996 Symposium on Integrated Justice Information Systems, "As useful as computerized information may be, we fail to even scratch the surface of its potential if we don't move toward integration through strategic planning."

The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (OJP), hosted three Intergovernmental Information-sharing Meetings in 1998, bringing together teams from 25 states to solicit information from state- and local-level justice practitioners about integrated information systems planning and implementation. "OJP realizes that nationwide integrated justice must be accomplished by harnessing the efforts under way at the local and state levels," says Paul Kendall, general counsel for OJP. "OJP is committed to a bottom-up approach in which state and local criminal justice leaders help us define the impediments to integration and possible solutions."

Challenges, successes and failures were discussed at the meetings, and attendees made recommendations about how federal dollars can be best coordinated to support systems integration efforts. In addition, attendees strongly endorsed the development of other resources, such as technical assistance, the development at IT standards, and the broad sharing of information, models and successful strategies.

Challenges Remain

Over a 5-year period, $1.25 billion will provide the critical seed money necessary to begin establishing a firm foundation on which state and local justice agencies can build their integrated information and identification systems, and will reduce the amount of time the public must wait before it enjoys the benefits of full-scale justice system integration.

Still, the road to integrated systems implementation is lined with myriad challenges, such as funding needs that transcend traditional acquisition procedures and bureaucratic boundaries; potential conflicts between public access, privacy and confidentiality; security issues; and the need to develop acceptable information exchange standards and long-term system maintenance plans.

Justice agencies face these issues and many other challenges when automating and integrating their information systems are addressed through a comprehensive program of technical assistance services provided by SEARCH.

SEARCH National Technical Assistance Programs

SEARCH, a private, nonprofit corporation based in Sacramento, Calif., is dedicated to improving the use, management and exchange of justice and criminal history information through information and identification technologies and the application of responsible law and policy.

SEARCH technical assistance is available to state and local justice agencies nationwide that need help in planning for, acquiring, developing, upgrading or integrating automated information systems. Assistance is provided at no cost to the requesting agency and consists of both in-house and on-site activities. Technical assistance activities are supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Any state or local justice agency can receive SEARCH technical assistance, including jails, correctional institutions, probation and parole agencies, courts, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and public defense.


Another major component of the new law is the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact, which formalizes use of the Interstate Identification Index (III) system for authorized noncriminal justice purposes, such as background checks for security clearances, license issuances and applications for employment in sensitive occupations such as child and senior care.

Kelly J. Harris is director of Justice IT Services for SEARCH. For more information on SEARCH and its technical assistance programs, contact Harris at e-mail:, or visit SEARCH's Web site at
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Author:Harris, Kelly J.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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