More than any other time in history, the nation's justice community is at a crossroads with respect to technology implementation and integration of information systems. Recent and unprecedented national initiatives, combined with growing user needs and public demand for criminal justice information, are driving efforts to exchange and integrate data among an expanding array of justice agencies, including law enforcement, prosecution, defense, courts, corrections, probation, parole and social services.

Recognizing that integrating justice-information systems tops the list of state and local IT priorities, Congress took the lead last fall and passed historic legislation authorizing the largest justice-assistance program ever, to support information sharing among justice agencies.

Letter of the Law

Beginning this fiscal year, Public Law 105-251, which includes the Crime Identification Technology Act of 1998, authorizes $250 million each of the next five years for grants to state and local agencies to promote the integration of justice-system technology.

Title I of the new law will "permit all components of criminal justice to share information and communicate more effectively on a realtime basis," according to the bill's principal author, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.

The act will also provide funding for grants to states so they can participate in major national programs such as the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) 2000, and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) Program.

"[The new law] is based on the principle that technology is the future of police work," DeWine said following the bill's passage. "It is the No. 1 edge our law enforcement officers are going to have in the struggle against criminals, well into the 21st century."

Systems Integration

Justice agencies throughout the nation 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 systems. Adequate and coordinated funding focused specifically on such integration efforts, however, has been lacking. The technology act authorizes grant monies to each state "to establish or upgrade an integrated approach to develop information and identification technologies and systems."

"The act," DeWine said, "envisions a criminal justice system in which all parts of the system -- law enforcement, courts, prosecution and corrections -- use state-of-the-art information, identification, communication and forensic technologies in a compatible and integrated manner, so as to mount the most effective and cost-efficient challenge yet to crime."

The new law emphasizes the participation of courts in the strategic planning process and their use of information and identification technology. It recognizes that courts are not only an integral supplier of information on dispositions, but are also an important consumer of arrest and conviction information.

To receive a grant under the new law, states must create strategies for statewide information sharing, developed by state and local officials who oversee, plan and implement integrated information technology. The act also requires a 10 percent match by grant recipients.

Building on Current Initiatives

The technology act was designed, in part, to build upon the accomplishments of the National Criminal History Improvement Program, which has provided more than $200 million to improve states' automated criminal-history records systems for participation in the national instant-check system for firearms purchase eligibility. DeWine maintains that the grant program established under the new bill is needed to continue momentum to build a fast, comprehensive and reliable check system for firearms eligibility.

But the technology act does more. The federal government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in major national automated systems that require state and local participation to work effectively. Take, for instance, the FBI's IAFIS, scheduled to begin operations in July. At a cost of $640 million, IAFIS, the largest financial undertaking in the history of the U.S. Justice Department, will reduce the amount of time necessary