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.

"OUTDATED AND INEFFICIENT"

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justice officials, declared the current methods for handling arrest, prosecution, defense, court and correctional data outdated and inefficient.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