Justice Agency "Berlin Wall" Pulled Down

Barriers of turf and technology fall in the service of integrated justice information.

by / May 31, 1997
Ventura County, Calif., justice agencies were using antiquated computer systems that didn't talk to each other, wasting time and money when there was none of either to spare.

Each of these agencies in the coastal Southern California enclave -- District Attorney, Sheriff, Public Defender, Probation, Corrections and Superior and Municipal Courts -- had to enter the same information into its computers, based on printed reports from other agencies. This required a lot of extra time and attention from personnel.

"We have technology in place that served us well, but it got old and no longer meets our needs,'' said Capt. Lary C. Reynolds of the Sheriff's Office, a member of the task force that studied the pro-blem. "It doesn't do what we expect in this era -- like statistical analysis. Because it doesn't analyze data -- like when the peak time is for burglaries -- we have to operate on hunches about where to deploy officers. It's labor-intensive."

Margie Borjon-Miller, deputy executive officer of Ventura County Courts, said she and other task force members were appalled when they visited agencies and saw the current system in action. "We discovered that an officer could spend up to two hours filling out forms," she said. "The same name was being entered seven or eight individual times. We realized we needed a better approach.''

The system was slow as well. A paper order or warrant, for example, could take two to three weeks or more to move through the system, which increased the risk to the public and law enforcement.

Then, in May 1995, the Justice Policy Council, composed of the county's leading justice officials, declared the current methods for handling arrest, prosecution, defense, court and correctional data outdated and inefficient. An Integrated Justice System Task Force developed a plan to eliminate redundant work and make the judicial process -- from arrest to probation -- paperless. The result was an ambitious, innovative $18 million records-management project called the Ventura County Integrated Justice Information System (VCIJIS).

The concept was to share a common database over a networked computer system based on one platform. All five participating criminal justice agencies and others outside the county could access the information, yet still maintain separate databases to protect sensitive material.

Ventura was no stranger to advanced technology -- both the county government and the courts have Web pages. Nevertheless, a number of technical hurdles needed to be cleared.

"All the criminal justice agencies in Ventura County were assessing their technology in preparation for upgrading to newer client/servers," said Borjon-Miller. The District Attorney's Office was using a Honeywell/Bull system, and the sheriff had several different systems running on Hewlett-Packard machines. The courts were on a separate Hewlett-Packard system, and local law enforcement agencies were in a similar position.

Getting the computers to talk, however, couldn't happen until staff and executives from competing and sometimes combative agencies could talk and come to an agreement. Some justice and law enforcement agencies -- especially prosecution and defense -- are adversarial by design. In addition, law enforcement agencies traditionally keep their cards close to the vest. The Sheriff's Office, for example, wanted its own separate gang database, and didn't want the Public Defender, District Attorney or the courts to access it. So the system would need to allow the sheriff to restrict who could get into that data. The District Attorney, Public Defender, Probation Department and the courts also may have separate databases with access control.

"Security concerns about specific information was a major stumbling block initially for cooperation among agencies,'' said Reynolds. "There were legal considerations about who can access juvenile information and rape information. So we have an agreement with the other agencies that each agency will have a separate part of the database that nobody else can access."

"There are three essential components -- technology, administrative, political," Borjon-Miller said. "If all aren't in concert it won't work. We're very happy that we were able to break down the 'Berlin Walls' between the various agencies. There's such a strong spirit of cooperation here that we all agreed on one process and one record to be shared.''

However, an agreement was only the first step. Finding the money to pay for a shared system, in an era of increasingly scarce resources, was the next challenge.

The county already has $1.8 million to spend and figures another $1 million will be saved by having a common computer infrastructure. But the county will have to raise an additional $15.2 million. Still, everyone is optimistic, saying the proposal makes too much sense not to finance. About 30 vendors have been invited to submit bids.

If implemented on schedule by the end of 1999, VCIJIS could:

Improve and speed the flow, tracking and exchange of information about incidents, cases and individuals among all county and non-county criminal justice agencies using common identifiers.
Reduce redundant data entry and administrative tasks within those agencies through one-time entry of information and automatic routing of related materials between agencies.
Search, sort and analyze data.
Resolve year 2000 requirements for all existing county criminal justice information systems.
Allow for expansion and improvement of the integrated system at minimal expense.
Reduce training costs in each agency by standardizing the network and making it accessible through any computer on the system.
Avoid cost increases in the county's central computer infrastructure by standardizing all hardware and software technology and sharing the database server and support resources.
Provide automatic data backup on a separate server. The two servers would constantly monitor each other and assume the workload of the other in case of failure.
"This will tie all computer systems in the county together, and make it one system," said Reynolds. "It will cost less than each agency buying its own system. It will save time and effort and prevent errors by entering the information once when a person gets arrested, and it should eliminate scheduling conflicts between the jail, the sheriff and the courts. It also will save the county $20 million over the next 10 years because of efficiencies and the year 2000 problem. The bottom line is if we don't invest in this now, it will cost a lot more later. This county isn't rolling in money, but we can't afford to throw money away on the back end."

If the system is implemented, task force members say it will be the only fully integrated computerized justice system in the country.

Greg Totten, the county's chief deputy district attorney, said his office is excited about the project for a number of reasons. "We'll save time and be more efficient, and we can send the electronic data instead of paper when the file goes to the courtroom," he said.

For more information, visit Ventura County government at or the courts at .

James Evans is the author of "Law on the Net" and "Government on the Net," guides to online legal and government resources from Nolo Press. He can be reached at


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Ventura County justice agencies wasted time and money maintaining redundant databases.

SOLUTION: An integrated database accessible to all participating agencies.

JURISDICTION: Ventura County, Calif.

CONTACTS: Margie Borjon-Miller 805/654-3620. E-mail: ; Lary C. Reynolds, captain, Ventura County Sheriff's Dept. 805/654-2338; Greg Totten, chief deputy district attorney, Ventura County District Attorney's Office 805/648-9616; Barbara Burris, deputy director, Child Support Division, Ventura County District Attorney's Office and information systems coordinator, Ventura County District Attorney's Office 805/654-5262.