Coordinating Criminal Justice Computer Information Systems

Coordinating Criminal Justice Computer Information Systems

Teresa W. Carns

Carns, Teresa W. (Spring 1994). "Coordinating Criminal Justice Computer Information Systems." Alaska Justice Forum 11(1): 1, 4. Since the early 1970s state agencies in Alaska have discussed sharing data and connecting their computer systems, but each attempt has ended with little progress made. This article summarizes a Wolfe and Associates report prepared for the Alaska Judicial Council which describes existing state criminal justice computer information systems in Alaska and makes recommendations for improved connectivity and coordination between them.

According to a report recently prepared for the Judicial Council, Alaska might begin the twenty-first century with a criminal justice information system which could serve as a model in the rest of the country if the state adopts recommendations made recently to the legislature and the Criminal Justice Working Group. Wolfe and Associates prepared these recommendations for the legislature under a contract to the Alaska Judicial Council.

Since the early 1970s, state agencies have discussed sharing data and connecting their computer systems, but each attempt has ended with little progress made. The Wolfe and Associates report reviews the existing systems for each department, sets a framework for making decisions about coordinating the sharing of information, discusses available technologies, and recommends that Alaska move from its existing reliance on a combination of mainframes and in-house PC systems to networked client/server computers. What follows is a summary of the findings of the study and its recommendations.

1. The current criminal justice computer information systems are, to varying degrees, inadequate even for individual departments.

The state designed and acquired many parts of the current systems twenty or more years ago, when the demographics, state structure, prison population and technology differed greatly from the current situation. Moreover, the systems of the various departments, even when adequate for their individual needs, seldom can communicate with one another. This inability to communicate leads to inefficiency.

The Department of Corrections is in the worst position with a computer system that dates back over twenty years. It must manage a large and expanding prison population, as well as a budget well over $100,000,000 per year, with what is essentially a paper information system. The great expense and chance for serious mistakes created by managing such a complicated organization without an adequate computer information system makes a compelling case for implementing the systemwide changes we suggest.

While the computer information system within the Department of Public Safety best serves the needs of its department, even this system needs improvements. Specifically, DPS needs a new fingerprint identification system. The Court System's information system is comprehensive in theory; however, the software is only now being written. The Department of Law's system is outdated and not as useful as it should be.

2. The computer systems of the separate departments are not coordinated.

Many, though not all, of the subparts of Alaska's criminal justice computer systems should work together. Each department processes the same criminals, collects much of the same information about them, and in many situations needs information available only from other agencies. Nonetheless, the departments have separate systems that for the most part do not communicate.

An example of problems presented by the lack of communication is revealed in the handling of information about an offender's conviction. Ideally, the court would immediately enter the conviction into a court case management computer system and transfer it electronically to Corrections, Public Safety, the Department of Law, and the Public Defender Agency. However, under the current system, essential conviction information is transmitted in paper forms, with varying degrees of speed and efficiency, to other agencies. Employees at the other agencies then must manually type the information into the various computer systems, sometimes months later, with the risk of data entry errors that accompany manual systems.

3. The criminal justice agencies are working together to improve the system.

All agencies are participating in interagency groups designed to identify and resolve critical integration issues. The Criminal Justice Working Group, the Computer Policy Coordination Group, and the Criminal Justice Information Systems Technical Users Group meet regularly, with staff support from the Alaska Judicial Council. The Division of Information Services in the Department of Administration has defined the requirements for and is working to implement a statewide backbone telecommunications network that would allow agencies using different computer systems to communicate with one another. As already noted, the Alaska Court System is designing a state-of-the-art management system and the Department of Public Safety has significantly improved the identification of offenders and has provided leadership in implementing change.

4. Unless improvements are made, Alaska faces substantial and increasing problems.

Inadequate case management systems compromise important functions of Alaska's criminal justice system. With the current system, child care centers and other employers cannot obtain reliable criminal history records needed to identify convicted child molesters and felons who apply for jobs. Social service agencies cannot adequately screen felons from foster care and other programs. Moreover, the courts cannot accurately apply presumptive sentencing guidelines because the state cannot always capture the offender's full criminal history.

While the Department of Public Safety has significantly improved identification processing, the inadequacy of the state's current fingerprint identification system compromises Alaska's ability to identify felons who avoid detection by using an alias. Also, a new fingerprint identification system is needed in order for the state to fully comply with federal programs such as the Brady Bill, the Child Protection Act, the interstate exchange of criminal history records, and the convicted alien reporting program of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The Wolfe & Associates report to the Judicial Council recommends that the state move gradually during the next five years from its present systems to new client-server applications, new case management systems for the Departments of Law and Corrections, completion of the courts' work on building new case management systems, livescan fingerprinting with a new system for storage and transmission of fingerprints, and a statewide communications network. Most existing programs would eventually be redesigned to run on the new computer network. The report notes that the proposed system would give the state flexibility in taking advantage of new, more powerful and less expensive technologies, that users would find it more friendly than existing programs, and that it could interact with other software and programs more readily than the present system does.

The Alaska Judicial Council has sent the recommendations to the legislature and the Criminal Justice Working Group for action. Bill Cotton, Executive Director of the Judicial Council, expects agencies to take many steps on their own and has noted that an interagency technical users' group already has adopted standards for entry of common data elements, such as name and birth date. Other groups, including a policy-level interagency committee, will decide how to implement those recommendations directed at existing programs. Any organization wishing to assist in this effort should contact Bill Cotton at the Judicial Council.