Washington, D.C.’s Criminal Case Initiation Project Automates Court Processes

Multiple arresting agencies in Washington, D.C., collaborate and hammer out agreements to build a law enforcement and justice information network.

by / March 30, 2012
Tom McKeith

Within the District of Columbia’s 68 square miles are some 20 different federal and local agencies with authorization to make arrests — from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department to the Park Police and U.S. Attorney’s Office. With so many arresting agencies crammed into such a small space, one might expect that in addition to the increased complexities of arrest, booking, pretrial services, prosecution, defense, corrections, probation and parole, some legendary turf wars also would exist.

But that’s not the case thanks to a two-year collaborative venture called the Case Initiation Project (CIP), in which eight different agencies created a near real-time electronic exchange of information to automate the process by which adult criminal cases are filed in court.

Collaboration Essentials

The project began when three agencies applied to the district’s Justice Grants Administration for information-sharing seed money and received about $950,000.

“We had a ton of challenges,” said Imran Chaudhry, CIO of the D.C. Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), which was the lead agency for the project. “None of these agencies has jurisdictional control over the other. There was no single arbitration body, and the courts by their nature are independent. So it was a voluntary involvement based on a common understanding of the necessity of automating this.”

The CJCC — both a council of agencies and an independent government agency that was created by two dual legislative acts, one by Congress and one by the Washington, D.C., City Council — was designed to tackle such difficult issues. “Our primary reason for being an agency is to facilitate coordination among district-based criminal justice, law enforcement and public safety agencies,” said Chaudhry. “In light of the unique jurisdictional nature of D.C., one hand was not necessarily talking to the other. We have federal government partners, we have district government partners, and we have the judiciary as well. Our central role is to help facilitate coordination among all of these different levels of government.”

With CIP, even mundane matters like how to identify defendants required coordination and cross-agency agreement.

“Whenever we are exchanging information,” said Chaudhry, “we need to agree on certain common identifiers.” The result was the universal person identification, known locally as the Police Department ID number, which lets the district track an individual more effectively across the entire criminal justice process within the nation’s capital.

“We also implemented the universal case ID so we can tie the individual to the case and track the outcome of a case,” Chaudhry said. “Because of the voluntary nature, we couldn’t impose identifiers to be used internally within an agency, but we were able to come to an agreement on when we are exchanging information to use certain identifiers, and that was a key accomplishment.”

Between Feb. 24, 2011, and Nov. 18, 2011, Chaudhry said daily conference calls were held to address all of the technical and business issues that arose. From February 2011 until the system went live in September, nine rounds of testing occurred, in which 92 cases were repeatedly triggered and analyzed for any deficiencies.

“What was challenging, but also an opportunity, was for agencies to come together and map the business processes and the business rules of the road, and from there, identify the technical fix,” said CJCC Executive Director Mannone A. Butler. “Oftentimes you hear, ‘The technical folks can do what needs to be done, just give us the business rules.’” Butler said the two-year process with more than eight agencies at the table was “a marathon, not a sprint,” which wouldn’t have succeeded without the willingness of participants to collaborate.

The collaboration was helpful in building a better understanding between agencies, said Anne Grant, director of the D.C. Metro Police Department’s Crime Data Quality Branch. “You have a group of agencies that have history with one another, and we have our own agendas. What the police want is not what the courts want, and is not what the prosecutors want from the police officers, so there’s been a lot of compromising and diplomacy, and luckily Imran’s very good at that. It’s been a process of education, so I’ve learned a lot about what the courts do, and a little bit about what the prosecutors do — and they’ve probably heard more than they want to on what the Police Department does.”

According to Chaudhry, the overarching theme was the complexity of the jurisdiction itself. “I could simply say this [CIP] automated the process by which arrests are forwarded to prosecutors for action for the filing of an adult criminal case, but that belies the complexity,” he said. “Depending on the nature of the charges ... you could have one case that’s composed of charges exclusive to the federal prosecutor, which is the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or you could have a case that’s exclusively considered and filed by the D.C. prosecutor, which is the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. Or you could have a combination of both, so a single case is being co-prosecuted. There’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of coordination, that goes amongst these two prosecutors before the case is actually filed with the D.C. Superior Court.”

CIP participants took a magnifying glass to each step of the process, said Chaudhry, figuring out what information would go from where to where, how it would be routed, what the business rules were and what technical transactions would need to occur.

“All 20 arresting agencies are connected and related to the business process,” he said. “There is a centralized booking facility, so wherever an arrest is made in the city, they bring the arrestee physically to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s booking facility. They feed the information into the Police Department’s system, which feeds the 20 arresting agencies. And you will have an identifier as to who the arresting agency was.”

One advantage to CIP participants is an increase in case-related feedback. According to Chaudhry, CIP developed an electronic dashboard within JUSTIS — D.C.’s Integrated Justice Information System — that lets agencies track the progress of cases from arrest through prosecution to case filing. This allows users to quickly determine what outcomes have been achieved at various stages of the process.

For example, Grant said the Police Department now receives information on why prosecutors may decide to not prosecute a case. “It’s called ‘papering’ in the District of Columbia,” she said. “It’s the determination of whether the prosecutor will continue to prosecute the case or decline to prosecute — basically closing the case because they don’t think there’s enough evidence, the witness has backed out, or the complainant has recanted or something. Sometimes it’s outside the Police Department’s control, but sometimes there are things the Police Department could have done differently. So we’re getting those sorts of reasons back now so we can do our own analysis.”

Grant added that in the future, the Police Department will be able to get more court data. “We’ll actually find out what’s happening to the people we’re arresting once they leave our custody,” she said. “Now, we don’t know if someone has been put in prison for 10 years or whatever. So that information could be very helpful, especially for violent offenders.”

What’s Next?

While Washington, D.C., is unique, Dennis Caravantes, director of IT Security and System Development for the Pretrial Services Agency, said he thinks CIP could translate to other jurisdictions. “We modeled the CIP after Pennsylvania’s JNET,” he said, so it is applicable to other jurisdictions. “It is a matter of having the willingness to cooperate, which has been the key to our project. Each one of us has internal systems to support and enhance, and it would have been easy to leave ‘collaboration’ projects on the sidelines. However, this group was willing to commit the time and resources to get the system working.”

And now that the infrastructure and blueprint have been worked out for 11 different transactions, Caravantes said others will be easier. “We are talking about court case updates, supervised release updates, exchanges with the Sentencing Commission and data exchange with other nearby jurisdictions like Maryland and Virginia.”

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.