Bipartisan Congress Funds Technology Act

A new law authorizes funding needed to integrate justice information system and facilitate sharing of information among federal, state and local governments.

by / January 31, 1999
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 to positively determine the identity of a criminal suspect from weeks to hours. FBI officials estimate that IAFIS will prevent the release of up to 30,000 suspects who are freed from custody each year because of delays in establishing their true identities and
warrant status.

But IAFIS must rely on data and information provided electronically by state and local agencies. Only a handful of states are prepared to fully participate in this system by electronically sending fingerprints and associated criminal-history information to the FBI. Many other states are in dire need of funding and technical support to build the information infrastructure to participate in IAFIS.

The seed monies authorized in the technology act will also support state and local participation in the Interstate Identification Index, the national system that permits local, state and federal agencies to exchange arrest and conviction information, as well as the NCIC 2000, NIBRS, sex offender registries and other systems.

"The new law permits the nation's justice community to realize the full benefits of what has already been invested in these important federal systems," said Gary R. Cooper, executive director of SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, based in Sacramento, Calif.

Communications technologies for police systems are also a priority under the new law. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., one of the key supporters of the legislation, pointed out a vivid example of the need for integrated technology. In 1997, a shooting spree along the Vermont and New Hampshire border killed four people, including two New Hampshire state troopers.

"Vermont and New Hampshire officers were forced to park two police cruisers next to one another to coordinate activities between federal, state and local law enforcement officers," Leahy said, "because the two states' police radios could not communicate with one another."

Finally, 20 percent of the total grant program will be set aside for forensic technologies that have enormous potential for solving crimes.

"State forensic laboratories and medical examiner offices are experiencing difficulty in performing the scientific analysis necessary to prosecute these cases in a timely fashion," said Florida Rep. Bill McCollum. He added that the money set aside ensures that a meaningful amount of funding will support the forensic programs.

It is important to remember, however, that the technology act authorizes funding of up to $250 million each year; thus, Congress must also pass legislation each year appropriating the funds.

Challenges Remain

The $1.25 billion over a five-year period will provide critical seed money to build 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, there remain 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.

These and other challenges to integration will be addressed at the Bureau of Justice Assistance and SEARCH 1999 Symposium on Integrated Justice Information Systems, Feb. 8-10 in Washington, D.C. The symposium is geared toward state and local justice agency practitioners and will share models, best practices, standards and technologies to help these agencies successfully plan for and implement integrated systems. The symposium will also feature demonstrations of operational integration technologies and success stories from around the country.

Kelly J. Harris is the technical assistance program manager for SEARCH, a private, nonprofit corporation dedicated to improving the criminal justice system through effective application of information and identification technology. Funded by U.S. Department of Justice grants, SEARCH provides technical assistance, training and counsel to justice agencies that need help to plan for, acquire, develop, upgrade or integrate automated justice-information systems.