When Charles Francis was appointed chief judge of the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida in 1999, he found himself stymied by the array of information systems he and his fellow judges were supposed to use to make informed courtroom decisions.

"I had a defendant ask for a break on his court costs, claiming he was paying child support," Francis recalled. "I asked the court clerk, 'Can we verify these payments?' 'No', the clerk told me, and it was because the criminal court systems weren't connected to those in family court -- systems run by the same people in the same court system in the same building."

It was equally difficult to find out if arrested individuals up for arraignment were repeat offenders or worse, a known sexual predator who shouldn't be released on bond. It was this kind of information gap that contributed to the sexual abuse and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, reported nationally from Florida in March 2005.

Today the walls between Florida's many court and law enforcement databases are crumbling -- thanks to a highly flexible, low-maintenance information integration scheme that Francis shepherded from conception to statewide, funded reality.

Florida's Judicial Inquiry System (JIS) now allows judges, clerks, state prosecutors and many others in Florida's courts and law enforcement agencies to pull records from 13 disparate IT systems -- all with need-to-know security.

Records are now retrieved in minutes instead of hours of logging in to multiple systems , each with its own internal structure, query procedures and password.

The JIS provides more knowledge of the person standing before a judge's bench and allows for better-informed decisions about sentencing options such as bonds, imprisonment or leniency.

"I recently had a defendant ask for a public defender in a criminal case," Francis recalled. "He told me he was too broke to afford his own lawyer. But a search in [the] JIS showed us that he had recently collected $40,000 from a probate settlement."

In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court gave the system a major boost by calling for its expansion, specifically into tracking known sexual predators throughout the state in real time -- one of the most demanding law enforcement information systems ever proposed.

With new funding from the Jessica Lunsford Act, the JIS will extend its reach to a state sexual predator database, the Department of Juvenile Justice, two separate databases run by the state's Department of Children and Families, and real-time booking.

The JIS takes on the multitude of databases with little additional engineering work, Francis said. The system -- developed by Metatomix of Waltham, Mass. -- is technically about as nonintrusive and benign as it possibly could be, he said.

No changes are ever required in any of the applications or databases into which the system connects. Each database continues to be operated and maintained independently of all others, organized according to its own schema, extended or modified as its owner sees fit as it continues to serve its original set of users.

This translates to minimal engineering expense, and enables the JIS to avoid the political and legal quagmire that could have arisen had the state opted for the common solution to such a problem: creating a centrally managed collection of records, or a data warehouse.

Central warehousing of records wouldn't work for the JIS for a variety of reasons, according to Mike Love, CIO of Florida's State Court System. Because there are strict laws about which agencies are permitted to collect and store certain kinds of information about individuals, creating a JIS warehouse would entail endless legal and technical hassles.

Most critical, though, is that to avoid releasing criminals who should be kept behind bars, judges and other users need access to the very latest records about arrests and decisions

John W. Verity  |  Contributing Writer