A Model System

Pennsylvania's justice network, which helped the FBI track terrorists, is shaping up as a standard for future systems.

by / May 1, 2002
Pennsylvania's Justice Network (JNET) has grown over the past five years. What began as a simple means for connecting disparate justice systems is now being used to track terrorist suspects for the FBI and serving as a model for future justice systems.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, JNET helped the FBI identify and locate potential suspects from United Airlines Flight 93, which went down in western Pennsylvania. Immediately following the attacks, JNET installed a system for the FBI that sent information about the state's entire population to one terminal.

The FBI ran a list of all the passengers aboard Flight 93 through the JNET system. First, using the Justice Flexible Search feature, the FBI was able to simultaneously search multiple justice systems using a variety of criteria. Investigators then enlisted the digital photo search function to find a driver's license photo for one of the suspected terrorists. Another suspected terrorist was identified using arrest record information. He was located in a correctional facility.

Prior to JNET, such a search would have entailed labor-intensive outreach to surrounding jurisdictions involving a lot of overlap and duplication of work. A similar search takes a fraction of the time with JNET.

JNET was established in an attempt to unify disparate justice and public safety networks across Pennsylvania and make any and all relevant data available to the people who need it. JNET has helped to eliminate logistical boundaries and the duplication of work across city and county lines. By connecting numerous databases, anyone who is entered into the system, at any point, can be tracked across municipal and county lines. Previously, a suspect apprehended in one county could have been booked and released before it was discovered there was a warrant for his or her arrest in another county.

Follow the Clues

The JNET system is best known for facilitating thorough and swift tracking of suspects and inmates, but has also been used to crack unsolved cases, including a 21-year-old murder case.

The Philadelphia Police Department had fingerprints from a 1980 homicide. The problem was they had been unable to link the prints to an individual, and the case became dormant because of the lack of suspects.

Police later used the Automated Fingerprint Identification System to find a match for the fingerprints but found no records of the individual. They ran a mug shot search across JNET and, using an inmate search function, located a suspect who was in custody, serving 10 to 20 years for robbery. He was up for parole in 2001.

Once interrogated, the suspect admitted to a total of seven murders, four of which have been confirmed. "I've been in this business 32 years and having [a] one-stop shop is a huge advantage and saves a tremendous amount of time," said Lt. Harry Giordano of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Original Idea

The genesis of JNET dates back to 1995, when former Gov. Tom Ridge created an initiative that provided law enforcement with new ways to combat crime. In May 1997, Ridge allocated $11 million to begin building JNET and to create the JNET Steering Committee, a group of justice representatives assigned to establish and manage the tactical components of JNET.

The initial budget for JNET's first year of existence (1998-1999) was $8 million. That budget has increased steadily every year with a budget of $12.5 million for 2002. According to Linda Rosenberg, executive director of JNET, the bulk of that money goes to creating new features and additional functionality, as well as adding new data and infrastructure. Consulting firm KPMG is still heavily involved in the project. A total of $53.9 million has been allocated for JNET to date.

The governance structure of JNET consists of four tiers:
1 - An executive council, which is comprised of chief executives of various justice organizations and determines overall policy and strategy.
2 - A JNET Senior Policy Team that monitors the overall compliance with state policy, budget, information technology standards and initiatives, and is chaired by the deputy secretary for information technology.
3 - A steering committee comprised of IT directors and policy directors.
4 - The JNET Office, which handles the day-to-day management and development of the JNET project and works directly under the CIO.

Like any project of similar size and ambition, the stumbling blocks in getting JNET off the ground were varied and required focused mediation. Given the intended uses of JNET and the technical ramifications, the stumbling blocks were of the territorial and personnel nature, as well as logistical and financial.

The territorial issues were typical of any intersection of law enforcement agencies, which are notoriously territorial and cautious about sharing sensitive information they've worked to collect. JNET was also initially seen as a potential threat to agency personnel who feared that the new system was to replace rather than enhance existing databases and networks.

Personnel soon overcame that initial fear. "Fortunately the JNET architecture lends itself well to gradual and iterative development," said Rosenberg. "After the first release was in production for a while, the agencies felt more comfortable sharing a greater amount of information."

The issues of the governance and balance of power also complicated the rollout of the system. Because representatives from a variety of agencies formed the JNET governance structure, it remains to be seen how the decision-making process would be established and power allocated.

"Some [representatives] may have worked together before, some not. Some had suspicions to overcome," said Rosenberg. "The group members needed to align their goals and have their commitment to justice and public safety take them beyond any preexisting issues."

The logistical issues surrounding the project stemmed from the perceived availability of resources necessary to build JNET. An outside consultant to assist the JNET team in conceptualizing and building the solution. Other logistical stumbling blocks concerned project administration issues such as procurements, budgets and contracts.

Finally, the issue of financial responsibility came into play as a potential stumbling block in terms of whose budget would finance the project. Instead of addressing this issue with each agency, the commonwealth established a centralized, independent budget for JNET.

JNET has grown to include several federal agencies, 17 state agencies, 20 counties as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and a handful of smaller municipalities. Approximately 3,200 individuals are using JNET, 300 of which are on the municipal level. JNET expects to have 5,000 users by the end of this year.

Model Citizen

Though most other states are at some discernable level of development of their justice networks, Pennsylvania is arguably the furthest along with JNET. The project has been considered a success in terms of its strategic rollout and management.

Pennsylvania believes JNET could serve as a blueprint for other states building their own justice systems or making changes to existing ones, and is open to showcasing the system as an example.

"The District of Columbia is an example of another jurisdiction that saw the benefits of JNET and started its own project along the same lines," said Rosenberg. "There are differences, certainly, but the basic principles remain the same."

Dave Roberts, deputy executive director of the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (SEARCH), also believes using JNET for a blueprint is a worthy venture. "The good thing about JNET is it presents a tangible example," he said.

Using JNET as a model for the future would allow states to build their justice systems more efficiently, and would also serve a greater purpose. "Collaborating with government entities beyond the commonwealth would support the growth of JNET and amplify the benefits to all participating parties," said Rosenberg.