Past Issues of Government Technology

Smart System

Florida's Judicial Inquiry System gives state judges the data they need to decide defendants' fates.

by / March 1, 2006 0
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 in other courtrooms. It would be exceedingly difficult, technically and financially, to accomplish that by keeping a central data store continually updated with feeds from multiple sources.

What actually makes the JIS tick, Love said, is software that simulates the actions of a speedy and well trained clerk. Based on the initial request for data entered by a court clerk in a Web browser, for instance, this software dispatches the right query to each of the appropriate databases.

It then collects each source's results and most difficult of all, interprets them to create a summary of their relevant data. It overcomes the differences in how each database may define a specific element of data. For example, one database may contain a defendant's name, while another has a variant spelling or an alias. The JIS can resolve these discrepancies by associating other data such as a Social Security number and date of birth, even coping with multiple Social Security numbers the defendant may have under false identities. Metatomix offers solutions behind the firewall or as a hosted Web service, but the Florida solution is not Web-based.

In theory, it would be possible to build a set of rules to accommodate all formats and the JIS might encounter, but that would require a lot of work. Each time a new database is added, a whole new set of rules would have to be written and tested.

Instead, the system's core intelligence, supplied in the form of software from Metatomix, relies on a rich semantic model, or ontology.

By using an advanced form of industry-standard extension of extensible markup language (XML), called Resource Description Framework, this model captures knowledge about the many entities that the JIS's constituent databases typically use: individuals' names; home addresses; mother, daughter, son or other family members; phone numbers; court case ID numbers; vehicle registration numbers; license plate tags; categories of offenses and so forth.

The model captures the existing relationships between these abstract entities: People live in houses, which have street addresses and phone numbers, and are located in towns; towns exist in counties, etc.

The model allows for software to accommodate new fields of data and other changes made to individual databases contributing to the JIS.

"We didn't want to require any data providers to perform any function for us or add any additional overhead to their systems," Love said. "Some database providers have volunteered to tag their records in XML, which helps a good deal, but for the most part, data is accessed in place wherever it resides with no changes required."

The system's success, Love said, depends heavily on the cooperation and support of the data providers, specifically the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, (DLE) the Florida Department of Corrections, and the Florida Association of Court Clerks.

The JIS delivers more than just alphanumeric text, according to Love, who also said it retrieves photographs, which is proving a big help in positively identifying individuals. It is not unusual for defendants to deny their own identity to a judge or prosecutor, but with access to photos on file at the Department of Corrections and other agencies, those identities will be easily verified.

With the expansion to the JIS slated to take effect in March 2006, the system will automatically inform judges when any arrestees have a criminal record at the time of their very first appearance in court.

"When the person is booked into a jail, their fingerprints will be scanned electronically and forwarded to the Department of Law Enforcement," Love said.

If the arrestee is found to have a criminal past, be on probation or be a sexual offender, DLE's system will immediately notify the JIS, with no human intervention. It will also trigger queries to a number of other databases, and post a summary of this sensitive information on a secure Web page that is accessible only to the judge and others involved in the arrestee's first appearance.

Currently the JIS serves 4,000 active users -- judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and investigators. It's accessible through any standard Web browser, provided the user has the proper credentials.

Love and his team have set up an access control system that relies on digital certificates and users' roles in the judicial process. Metatomix has already demonstrated the ability to extend the JIS to secure wireless devices for use in the field. Based on their roles, individual users are permitted access to databases and categories of information for which they have authorization.

Francis noted that the system has been designed to serve people working at home in Florida's least-populated rural counties, as well as those using broadband connections in Miami and Tallahassee.

"We're still infants, yet," he said. "Eventually I think every corrections officer, every probation office, truancy officer, and juvenile or family investigator should have access to JIS. It will make everyone's job easier."
John W. Verity Contributing Writer