Last year, the tide finally turned in favor of integrated justice information systems. Perhaps it occurred when Congress passed the Crime Identification Technology Act, authorizing millions of dollars for state grants promoting the integration of justice information. Maybe it turned when Colorado linked information from its five criminal justice agencies, creating the first true statewide justice information system in the country. Or it might have been when yet another county joined the dozens of others that have integrated information among law enforcement, prosecutors, courts and correctional facilities.

In February, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the SEARCH group held their second symposium on integrated justice information systems. Last year, the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs completed the third in a series of regional meetings with state and local judicial experts to discuss the issue of information-sharing. Meanwhile, several more states joined nearly two dozen others that have established steering committees or advisory groups to coordinate justice integration efforts among state and local agencies.

The torrent of work on integrating justice information systems has been driven by two forces. Foremost is a growing public backlash against a justice system awash in paper, despite the billions that have been already spent on automation. For years, individual justice agencies have been investing in technology to automate -- some would even say integrate -- information within agencies. But as soon as the information has to move from one agency to another, the forces of bureaucracy take over. Electronic information must be converted back to paper, slowing the judicial process. Meanwhile, arrests, court caseloads and incarcerations keep increasing, making the problem worse.

In California and other states with death penalty laws, alarm bells have been ringing as prosecutors, public defenders, attorneys and judges wade through capital punishment cases that can run more than 40,000 pages. While these cases only make up a small percentage of court dockets, they have come to represent the dying canary in the mineshaft: an alert that something is wrong and needs to be fixed fast.

The second reason behind the drive to integrate has to with the vast improvements in technology, which made it easier to share and route information between systems. For jurisdictions without much automation at all, today's client-server technology offers a fast and efficient solution to justice integration. For the many other agencies with existing systems in place, a technology called middleware can link information between incompatible legacy systems, making integration a reality. And just around the corner waits the Internet, ready to raise the integration of justice information to new levels, including public access.

With the public and politicians demanding solutions, and technology ready to be deployed, what's left is for agency executives and IT directors to forge a plan that will make justice integration work.

Not surprisingly, integrating information systems between different agencies is proving formidable.

"This challenge has been complicated by the lack of coordinated and continuous funding; a plethora of existing systems that play vitally important roles in agency operations, but fail to communicate with other systems; and political, personality and separation-of-power issues and conflicts," wrote Kelly J. Harris, program manager for SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, in Justice System Integration: On the Threshold of a New Era, an unpublished article. "The result in years past has been a smattering of successful integration projects across the country -- and a near-equal number of failures."

Take a look at our nation's justice system and it seems a miracle that integration is happening at all. At the local level are law enforcement agencies and municipal courts, at the county level are prosecutors, courts and jails, and at the state level are agencies that oversee crime, courts and corrections.

To develop a process for integration, it's important to first recognize the differences in

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor