Justifying the Process: Judicial Agencies Struggle to Learn the Art of Integration

The final part of the series on integrated justice examines the processes by which state and local governments can develop and implement integrated justice systems.

by / March 31, 1999
Last year, the tide finally turned in favor of integrated justice information systems. Perhaps it occurred when Congress passed the Crime Identification Technology Act, authorizing millions of dollars for state grants promoting the integration of justice information. Maybe it turned when Colorado linked information from its five criminal justice agencies, creating the first true statewide justice information system in the country. Or it might have been when yet another county joined the dozens of others that have integrated information among law enforcement, prosecutors, courts and correctional facilities.

In February, the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the SEARCH group held their second symposium on integrated justice information systems. Last year, the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs completed the third in a series of regional meetings with state and local judicial experts to discuss the issue of information-sharing. Meanwhile, several more states joined nearly two dozen others that have established steering committees or advisory groups to coordinate justice integration efforts among state and local agencies.

The torrent of work on integrating justice information systems has been driven by two forces. Foremost is a growing public backlash against a justice system awash in paper, despite the billions that have been already spent on automation. For years, individual justice agencies have been investing in technology to automate -- some would even say integrate -- information within agencies. But as soon as the information has to move from one agency to another, the forces of bureaucracy take over. Electronic information must be converted back to paper, slowing the judicial process. Meanwhile, arrests, court caseloads and incarcerations keep increasing, making the problem worse.

In California and other states with death penalty laws, alarm bells have been ringing as prosecutors, public defenders, attorneys and judges wade through capital punishment cases that can run more than 40,000 pages. While these cases only make up a small percentage of court dockets, they have come to represent the dying canary in the mineshaft: an alert that something is wrong and needs to be fixed fast.

The second reason behind the drive to integrate has to with the vast improvements in technology, which made it easier to share and route information between systems. For jurisdictions without much automation at all, today's client-server technology offers a fast and efficient solution to justice integration. For the many other agencies with existing systems in place, a technology called middleware can link information between incompatible legacy systems, making integration a reality. And just around the corner waits the Internet, ready to raise the integration of justice information to new levels, including public access.

With the public and politicians demanding solutions, and technology ready to be deployed, what's left is for agency executives and IT directors to forge a plan that will make justice integration work.

Not surprisingly, integrating information systems between different agencies is proving formidable.

"This challenge has been complicated by the lack of coordinated and continuous funding; a plethora of existing systems that play vitally important roles in agency operations, but fail to communicate with other systems; and political, personality and separation-of-power issues and conflicts," wrote Kelly J. Harris, program manager for SEARCH, The National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, in Justice System Integration: On the Threshold of a New Era, an unpublished article. "The result in years past has been a smattering of successful integration projects across the country -- and a near-equal number of failures."

Take a look at our nation's justice system and it seems a miracle that integration is happening at all. At the local level are law enforcement agencies and municipal courts, at the county level are prosecutors, courts and jails, and at the state level are agencies that oversee crime, courts and corrections.

To develop a process for integration, it's important to first recognize the differences in responsibility between local, state and federal agencies, explained David Roberts, deputy director of SEARCH, based in Sacramento, Calif.

"At the local level, that's where they have the data at the operational level. For example, the court needs to be able to communicate with the sheriff's office to bring the suspect over for sentencing at a specific time and place," Roberts said. "The state's responsibility is to have the infrastructure in place that enables agencies to communicate between jurisdictions, to communicate with the state for state-maintained databases and to serve as a gateway to national systems."

Merely ascertaining everybody's role is just the beginning. Roberts added that governments also need to answer six key questions:

1. How are they going to organize for change?
2. What kind of technology are they going to need?
3. What sort of standards are they going to adopt?
4. How are they going to fund the systems?
5. How will they manage and maintain the systems once in operation?
6. How will they handle privacy and security concerns?

Most of these issues boil down to one problem: Getting traditionally autonomous agencies at both state and local levels to come together and agree on a process by which to develop and implement some kind of integrated justice system. The approach taken may mean the difference between success and failure.

While counties need only worry about participation of the three or four departmental systems they control, states must foster the collaboration of dozens of counties and hundreds of law enforcement agencies, as well as up to a half-dozen state agencies. So far, more than one-third of the states have begun organizing for integration, primarily through committees and groups charged with identifying the problems and developing strategic plans for implementation.

More than a half-dozen states have begun implementing integration plans. Besides Colorado (see February, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have put portions of their integration plans in place. Other states, including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota and Nebraska, have begun work on justice integration.

Perhaps no state better exemplifies the challenges of justice integration -- and the effort needed to make it work -- than Wisconsin. The state's justice system is a $2 billion annual business. It covers hundreds of local law enforcement agencies, more than 70 county court systems, numerous district attorney's offices and public defenders, the state's departments of justice and corrections, and the state police.

Despite the state's efforts at automation, including a statewide court computer system, serious gaps exist in Wisconsin's justice information system. "Often the information is there ... but it doesn't get communicated to the people who need it, at the moment they need it." according to a 1998 report on integration by the state's Bureau of Justice Information Systems (BJIS). "Such conditions pose threats to the personal safety of individual citizens, as well as to the general public's perception that our justice system works."

Besides its blunt assessment of public-safety concerns, the report, drafted by a team representing a cross-section of state justice agencies, details numerous instances of data redundancy, the most striking of which is the 79 forms used by state and local agencies in a typical felony case.

Other problems include the numerous car trips sheriffs and police must make to pick up documents or photos, the inability of public defenders to access criminal histories electronically, the inability to confirm the identification of defendants in some circumstances, and the lack of information passing from the courts to corrections, resulting in offenders being held in jail too long or released too soon.

Wisconsin actually confronted its justice integration problem in 1995 when Gov. Tommy Thompson signed legislation that gave the BJIS responsibility for coordinating and maintaining the sharing of electronic information in the state. After an attempt to deal with the issue through a steering committee of top managers failed, the bureau changed tactics and brought together representatives from state agencies on a more informal basis.

"We decided that our role would be to coordinate, not mandate," explained Alison Poe, the bureau's director. "We have monthly meetings where people involved with justice information can develop relationships and share information on a regular basis." The meetings began to take place around the time that the agencies realized that cooperating and sharing data were necessary to advance their own missions. "There's a certain amount of enlightened self-interest in the process," said Rick Godfrey, the bureau's program manager.

The state's first effort at voluntary integration involved statewide court automation. Despite the lack of mandates, most counties went along with the state's vision and joined the project. One reason court automation succeeded may have been that the state didn't emphasize the idea of a large statewide integrated system, but rather a solution for sharing information. The word "integrated" wasn't even used to describe the system. The result was a greater level of participation than expected. "The counties realized that they didn't have to depend on a central system to function," Godfrey explained.

The state emphasized the importance of local autonomy during the project. "In the justice system, autonomy will always be there," Poe said. "We need to get people to the point where they realize it's not going to jeopardize their autonomy to share information, but will actually provide tremendous value."

With court automation a success, the state has embarked on its next stage of justice integration, the automation of district attorneys' offices statewide. This will be followed by a computer modernization effort for state public defenders. Simplifying these efforts is the fact that both district attorneys and public defenders are state employees in Wisconsin. But in both cases, the BJIS is taking the same voluntary approach that worked with the county court automation project.

Traditional Funding Doesn't Work

Devising a formula for state and local agencies to collaborate looks simple when compared to the issue of funding. Most judicial and criminal information systems are paid through a patchwork quilt of funding sources, few of which are coordinated. "You've got state funding, federal funding, outsourcing options and transaction fees," SEARCH's Roberts noted. Not surprisingly, states and local governments have to put enormous effort into coordination, collaboration and consensus-building to steer all the various sources of financing toward systems that can be linked together.

What's important to remember, Roberts continued, is that the traditional funding approach no longer works in today's fast-paced information world. "We have to shift the paradigm away from the attitude of legislatures and county councils that funding for information systems occurs once every 10 years."

Some states have made significant investments in integrated justice projects, such as Pennsylvania, which is spending $13 million to develop a secure Web-based system. Others have streamlined the ad hoc funding sources that have resulted in islands of information. In California, technology funding for the courts has been turned over to the state after years of decentralized investments created havoc with information-sharing among the 144 county court information systems.

Wisconsin's funding typifies what many state and local governments must go through to develop information systems. For some systems in the state, funding comes through general-purpose revenues. Other systems, such as the county court automation project, are funded through transaction fees paid by offenders who are levied fines. A third source of funding comes from federal grants.

All three sources can pose problems. General revenue funds can be tied up by legislators and political pressures. Transaction fees can draw citizen backlash if they become too onerous. "You have to be careful not to add too many fees to court actions," Godfrey said. "There's the issue of elasticity of demand, resulting in local governments looking for other funding alternatives." Federal grants can also backfire by funding systems that are developed in a vacuum and don't support overall integration efforts.

However, the federal government has begun to address this issue and, through the Office of Justice Programs, has begun to coordinate how it doles out nearly $500 million annually to criminal justice information projects. According to Paul Kendall, the office's legal counsel, the Department of Justice is planning a number of strategies to improve the funding of integrated justice systems. In particular, the department wants to provide seed money to jurisdictions that can serve as models of justice integration for others and to provide grants to jurisdictions that plan common information-sharing goals. A third strategy will provide technical assistance to help jurisdictions move toward integrated information systems.

Because grants play such a large role in how justice systems are financed, some states have full-time grant coordinators to maximize every funding opportunity. While the feds continue to tinker with ways to coordinate grant-making, New Jersey has already set up its own grant coordination for law enforcement systems. Federal grant program requirements drive what each agency can do in terms of systems development, according to Steve Talpas, grant coordinator for the state's attorney general.

Talpas said New Jersey is able to bring order to the funding process by requiring that all grants be approved by the Attorney General's Office. Grant coordination has been aided by the fact that as the feds fund national crime identification projects, they have increased their emphasis on storing information in formats compatible with the FBI's system, resulting in a de facto national standard. "The feds realized that all 50 states have separate systems," he said. "So when they started to come up with funding and talked about integrating intrastate systems, they also got involved in interstate integration with the feds."

An example of this change in attitude can be found with criminal histories. According to Nick Deluca, project manager for New Jersey's criminal justice information system, as the feds created a national repository of criminal histories to aid identification, they realized the database would be used by other organizations, whether for employment purposes or handgun purchases.

"They had to develop a system that would be open for others to use," he explained.

But while new policies in federal and state government emphasize the need for open systems that are ready for integration, overall funding, especially for small and rural law enforcement agencies, remains inadequate.

"You don't have a consistent level of funding at the county level for law enforcement," Wisconsin's Godfrey said. "As a result, you don't see a consistent level of funding for automation."

The simplest solution is, of course, statewide funding for automation at all levels of government. "But any attempt to mandate would leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the counties," Godfrey said. "They have had plenty of experience in the past with that approach, which has not worked well."

Standards: Key to Reality

At first glance, adopting standards for justice integration seems as daunting as funding. But it might not be as hard as it seems. Fewer people need to be involved in the decision-making process, and policy-makers are beginning to recognize the benefits of having standards for information technology. As a result, state and local governments appear to be moving toward standards.

The Office of Justice Program's Kendall called solving the issue of data standards "the key to making an integrated justice system a reality."

In Wisconsin, that reality began to take shape several years ago, when the governor issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to use the same standards for technology. Initially, the goal was to ensure that, on an enterprise level, all employees had the minimum standards for hardware and software to perform their daily tasks.

With that framework in place, the BJIS has worked to establish standards for architectures that support data, applications, the technical infrastructure (i.e. the network) and the organization. By setting standards for itself first, Poe believes the state will have an easier job selling new systems to the counties. "We have set a standard for ourselves and it's one the counties can adopt, if they choose, to make all of our lives easier," she said.

Simplifying the situation is improved technology, making it easier to share and route information without applying system-killing mandates. According to Poe, the state needs to focus on standards for information and let the counties decide which technology they want to use. The result: fewer turf problems that can slow or kill a project.

Integration Can Work

Not so long ago, information-sharing among New Jersey's justice agencies was so bad that people convicted of crimes in the state could pay homeless people to serve their sentence. The correctional institutions had no way of verifying the identities of inmates, so real convicts stayed home while the homeless received some money and a warm bed for a few months.

Today, the state's crime-identification system has gone high-tech and is one of only four certified by the FBI. The days of jail understudies are over. New Jersey has also automated and networked its courts statewide. Cases are disposed overnight, not next week, next month or next year. Judges can click on a computer and call up information on every arrest, conviction, traffic fine and parking ticket ever issued to the person whose case he or she must decide.

New Jersey's justice information system is still incomplete, but what's in place so far is a harbinger of what's to come. Justice can be dealt much more swiftly, and in ways that the public understands as fair, when the right information is available to those who need it, when they need it.

The integration of justice information can work, according to people like Wisconsin's Poe. It doesn't require rocket science, but an approach that's unique to government, in which experts at the program level sit down and solve the real-world problems of information-sharing.

"The business approach to solving justice integration works. It is concrete. Legislators can understand it and it identifies issues important to citizens," Poe said. "The point is that justice is not one system but many. The payoff is in fixing the gaps."

Tod Newcombe is author of "Electronic Commerce: A Guide for Public Officials," published by Government Technology Press. Additional information is available online at or by contacting Lucinda McKevitt at 916/363- 5000 or via e-mail.
Tod Newcombe Features Editor