April 30, 1999 By Raymond Dussault
When it was learned that the driver was wanted on a warrant for failing to appear in court in another shooting case, and shouldn't have been on the streets at all, the state responded with a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, computerized warrant database to prevent further such tragedies.
Problem solved? No. In 1997, 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge was brutally murdered by a man wanted on 75 warrants.
Justice in America is often a slow and cumbersome process. Technology, it is hoped, will help change that -- eliminating paperwork, creating searchable digitized files, putting the bad guys behind bars quicker and keeping them there, reducing administrative costs and helping citizens find justice within the system. But sometimes within large successes you can find failures, and in the justice system a breakdown can lead to death.
In 1994, Massachusetts was faced with a growing problem: Each day, district courts were issuing thousands of arrest warrants for everything from speeding to murder, and those warrants were adding to an unwieldy problem.
The state was already trying to manage a 350-year-old system that included hundreds of thousands of paper warrants filed in cabinets and boxes, searchable only like the Yellow Pages -- with your fingertips. The problem was violently underscored when the Boston police officer was slain during that routine traffic stop. The murderer, it later came out, was wanted on a default warrant related to another shooting.
Stunned by the avoidability of the tragedy, state officials moved quickly to enact the Warrant Reform Act, which mandated a statewide arrest-warrant database known as the Warrant Management System (WMS). While not the nation's first computerized warrant database, it was the first to provide realtime access as warrants were issued. The system is administered by the Criminal History
Systems Board, and warrants are entered when issued by district court clerks. The centralized database is accessible through every district court, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) and all law enforcement agencies.
Before the WMS, knowing whether a person was wanted outside a police officer's own jurisdiction was practically impossible. Now, an officer can check simply by querying the database. However, several new tragedies have highlighted failings of the WMS -- not of the technology, but of the process, statutes and state staff -- prompting a review by the same legislative body that first mandated its creation.
"When we revisited this issue, we knew we were light-years ahead of where we were four years ago," said Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques. "But we also knew that we were light-years from where we wanted and needed to be."
Jacques chaired the Judiciary Committee that first mandated the creation of the WMS and chairs the Post Audit and Oversight Committee re-examining the issue.
Tragedy Again, and Again
In many ways, it seems that the state is not far ahead of where it was with its antiquated paper system. The courts are still buried in a backlog of more than 275,000 outstanding warrants, a number swelling by about 5,000 each month, and the WMS is clogged with warrants because the system has not been utilized to its full potential.
More than two-thirds of all warrants are simple default warrants, issued solely because people skipped a court date or didn't pay a court-mandated fine. Though the capability is available, the WMS does not prioritize outstanding warrants, making it difficult for law enforcement to select which warrants to dedicate manpower to serving.
Also, while computers in each station can search the database, few field officers have laptops, so individuals that might be flagged during traffic stops and disturbance
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