Blind But No Longer Fragmented

The prevailing attitude projected by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and increasingly adopted nationwide ...

by / August 10, 2006
is that justice systems are best integrated when users access the data where they reside -- in a decentralized framework with a common architecture that connects legacy systems -- to speed deployment and reduce associated time and costs. In an integrated system, authorized users can manipulate data and create a meaningful profile of an individual or situation based on information from law enforcement agencies, the courts, prisons, drivers' licenses, parole officers, prosecutors, public defenders and so forth.

Criminal incidents, sentencing orders and citations can be filed, read and accessed by relevant parties within one architecture. Mobile access to databases can provide relatively accurate assessments of crime and criminal locations; quick access to prior criminal records in neighboring counties, cities or states; and essentially the ability to create a holistic picture of a criminal or event within minutes.

An adjunct benefit of integrated justice systems is administrative. Montgomery County, Md., is constructing a Web-based Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS) that will provide electronic access and the exchange of critical information at key decision points throughout the county's law enforcement and justice system processes.

Some states are paving the way with linked criminal justice databases and widespread user access. Pennsylvania's JNET system links the commonwealth's justice databases and provides access to this information across 67 counties. The portal lets its 22,000 users enter a search criterion via a Web browser and query information simultaneously from disparate state and county justice databases. Users can retrieve information on suspects from all applicable offices within minutes. The system can also send out immediate notifications to qualified agencies, in the event of an arrest or warrant of a suspect.

Minnesota's CriMNet has its own enterprise architecture that delivers information across agencies and the criminal justice system statewide. The architecture allows for information to be accessed where it resides rather than in one central data center. Similarly the Michigan State Police integrated several critical criminal justice applications into one secure portal, therefore automating identity management with a new security infrastructure.

Speaking the Same Language
In February 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the DOJ created the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) project. Key to this initiative is the expansion of the DOJ's Global Justice XML Data Model to include the requirements for sharing information related to justice and homeland security.

Extensible Markup Language (XML) facilitates electronic information exchange among justice agencies, and lets users search and manipulate real-time data from various sources. The language describes the information sent from one agency to another, and when deployed, serves as a universal format for data exchange. Jurisdictions and companies can share successful XML schemas for implementation elsewhere.

"To realize the value implicit in cross-government information sharing, we must move from separate system-to-system exchanges to a business-driven common data standard vocabulary for all systems involved," said Kshemendra Paul, chief enterprise architect for the DOJ. "NIEM provides an efficient and scalable approach."

Good Efforts
The transition to an integrated justice system depends on the extent of prior data sharing, and openness of states and local agencies. Alisoun Moore, CIO of the Department of Technology Services in Montgomery County, described its evolution there. "We started out three years ago with a multiyear, multiphase process, starting with the architecture and putting that in place first, and then we built systems on top of that architecture." The county's project includes plans for data integration of warrants, prison scheduling and tracking, the jail system, courts, prosecutors and management of records from the police departments and sheriff's office.

Moore said for each subsystem implementation, her team conducts sessions with end-users to re-engineer the workflow process and ensure each department can launch queries against many databases at once. "We control it all through a directory." she said. "We've been able to bank off these early successes, so it's hopefully seamless for end-users."

As far as integrated justice is concerned, Moore said this area is still in its infancy. "There have been good efforts with creating global XML standards, which provide the ability to share information among states and local entities, and it can only get better," she said. "The tools available out there are only improving, so I am optimistic."

The Wisconsin Justice Information Sharing (WIJIS) program promotes and coordinates information sharing systems so they can be compatible with local, county, state and tribal justice agencies. "Rather than upgrading or integrating systems directly, we are generally pursuing a service-oriented architecture [SOA] approach," said Jim Pingel, WIJIS program director. "The core technologies that make this possible are XML and Web services. SOA basically allows us to think about each system to be integrated as a 'service,' and each document or data point that must be shared as an 'exchange.'"

When building an integrated justice system, open source software can save governments and taxpayers money because it doesn't require licensing fees. Other jurisdictions can use it too, Pingel said. "Another state could come in and take the solution we are implementing here and implement it with no cost to them. Not only do we want to share this software with other states, but we also want to share information. You'll see a lot of counties -- especially border counties -- that may be more interested in information being used to fight crime and streamline justice systems. From my perspective -- the business perspective -- open source really fosters the sense of community and our ability to create partnerships locally and with other domains within and outside our state."

Tarrant County, Texas, with a population of 1.4 million, had to integrate multiple databases and operating systems -- there were 86 systems for the fire and police departments alone. Each department also had its own IT group and systems. Tarrant County used technology to link electronic case filing, jail management and records management, creating an effective real-time workflow that includes all facets of law enforcement. Police and fire departments, courts, district and defense attorneys, and jails now all have access to the same information.

"From a vision standpoint, our problem was how to integrate all our information silos without taking years and years," said Steve Smith, CIO of Tarrant County, adding that with SOA products, the county enhanced those silos without having to reconstruct them. "We had to change the viewpoint of what IT does for those different entities. I use the analogy of the electricity grid -- you don't care where it comes from, just that it works. We started overlaying a grid work on top of our systems.

"The other problem to solve was who owns which piece of data," Smith continued "Here, each officer, who has a unique role in the justice system, has unique access to information. We got out of the role-definition system and set it up administratively so officers can manage their own roles, assign roles within the system and do more with that information."

The program is favored by local news media because they can quickly access information on crimes, Smith said. "Justice employees who have used it are absolutely crazy about it. I can't say this for a fact, but I think this system has lowered crime in Fort Worth because we have better decision-making information."

Weighing the Cost-Benefit Ratio
Any government that contemplates coordinating tasks and data among agencies contends with cultural and bureaucratic obstacles. Erin Lee, program director of the homeland security and technology division of the National Governors Association (NGA) in Washington, D.C., sees governance as an area of key focus for successful integration of justice systems. "It can be essential in creating momentum, and then hopefully allocating funding and bringing more visibility to the issue," she said. The NGA has worked with more than 40 states on integrated justice planning and with 11 states on XML pilots.

Since governors can be instrumental in pushing initiatives that might otherwise receive less attention, Lee is pleased at the reception justice integration has received from governors countrywide. "They know it's the right thing to do," she said, adding that some of the major functions of governors are ensuring public safety, and then creating an information-sharing environment. "[They have] a full picture of what people need when they pull off the side of the road for help."

Turf and control issues can arise when different agencies work together and cross organizational lines, Lee said. "When the executive branch and law enforcement agencies are working with the courts, operating across governmental entities, it takes time to work through issues, but at the end of the day, people know it's the right thing to do. The process can be lengthy, figuring out what the priorities are. It helps to map out the entire process and prioritize from there, and obviously address the funding issue of finding resources."

Moore said Montgomery County's integrated justice project is going well, largely because information sharing has already gone on for a while and there is unanimous support from the directors of each affected department, as well as tight project management. "It's pretty extensive, and the reason all the directors are together on this is because they all recognize the strong need to share information among the departments," she said. "I think the culture shift has already taken place -- we had a very integrated justice mainframe base system to begin with, which was all centralized but inflexible in terms of modifying. We agreed to modernize in a rational manner and not lose anything in the process."

In Wisconsin, Pingel noted that his program doesn't own any of these systems. "We are on neutral turf and can work with all agencies in creating collaborative standards," he said. "The cultural, political and privacy issues are all still there. But we rely on the owners of those 'local' systems, whether it is a local police chief or sheriff, or the director of State Courts, or the secretary of the Department of Corrections, to continue to deal with the business issues around collecting and sharing their data."

According to Lee, privacy is another hot topic in integrated environments. "As IT reaches deeper into state government processes and cross-boundary information sharing becomes more common, concerns increase over the security and privacy, where relevant, of information," she said. "CIOs can deploy such tools as relationship credentialing solutions and role-based access to prevent privacy breaches and publication of confidential justice information."

Tracy Williams, CIO of Rhode Island IT division, noted that from a state CIO's perspective, security breaches of personal information and citizen privacy are a real threat. And Sallie Hunt, chief privacy officer of West Virginia agreed. "Public expectations are much higher nowadays that data will be classified and shared appropriately among agencies," she said.

Williams said the issue of privacy and justice information began to emerge early in her career when she served as assistant state court administrator. "I've been embedded in that conversation for a long time," she said. "Typically we feel that for criminals, certain privacy rules do not apply regarding what information is made public. But victim data, as well as data connected with family and friends of criminals, is also inputted and vulnerable to breaches." Also, to address the demand from victims and their families for information on offenders, Rhode Island developed a victims' assistance portal. "It's interesting though, while we are talking about the rights of a person whose property or body has been violated, we are also having a conversation about the rights of the offenders," she said.

"Some people are hesitant to share data because they worry unauthorized people will get access," said Yogesh Chawla, the WIJIS' technical lead. "We are working to make sure sensitive data are kept secure. Technology is where we have the chance of solving some of the problems. One of the biggest issues is trust. Agencies understand the benefit of sharing across jurisdictions, but they are also giving up the possibility of controlling the information. We want to create a level of comfort."

Pingel recalled working with the Milwaukee Police Department on information-sharing projects. "The biggest task there was convincing police chiefs that sharing knowledge and information is power. That level of trust wasn't there. However, in the last couple of years we haven't had to do as much selling in terms of the need to share information. Prosecutors and judges are getting it, and see it as an imperative and are willing to work with us on a system."

Moore sees room for improvement for integrated justice to really take off. "I sincerely wish the states would be more participatory in these types of projects," she said. "We have had a great deal of difficulty working with Maryland -- we gave up working with them because we couldn't see a way of bridging the technology gap between the two jurisdictions. As do many states, we access the federal systems via the state gateway, and therefore need to work together to create a seamless local, state and federal ability to access each other's information."