A truly integrated criminal justice system is a concept that has volleyed around state legislatures for many years, but concerns about who would manage the system, how it would work and agencies' protectiveness of their information always kept projects from being implemented.
Colorado successfully addressed every concern and, in March, went statewide with full implementation of its Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CICJIS), which made it the first state to make an integrated criminal justice system a reality.
According to Dave Usery, Colorado's chief information officer, CICJIS started to become a reality in 1994, even though the idea for an integrated criminal justice system came up in the Colorado Legislature many years before. At the time, there was a commission in the Legislature looking at criminal justice issues. In its final session, the commission queried the information systems director from each state criminal justice agency about their various systems and the lack of communication between them. Shortly thereafter, the legislative committee leader launched an audit of the state's criminal justice systems, which resulted in two bills that eventually led to CICJIS' development and implementation.
Intergrating Systems Across Agencies
One of CICJIS' key features is that it is not a statewide data warehouse managed by one particular agency, which is the model other states are attempting. Usery said that, if the system had been done that way, Colorado might have run into problems with each agency wanting autonomy and with agencies not using the system or just throwing up data for data's sake -- not for the sake of integration.
CICJIS accesses the data from five separate systems: the Department of Public Safety's Colorado Crime Information Center, which provides criminal histories, arrests and warrants to sheriffs and police; the judicial branch system, which includes probation information; the statewide district attorney system, which tracks filing; and the adult and youth corrections systems -- all without a centralized data warehouse. Sybase's Enterprise Connect middleware tools connect each system to a central machine that sees every database as if they were local. Users can access the system from any legacy system's front-end.
According to Usery, the system is like a client/server setup in that each system can be a client or a server to another system, and it can be used simultaneously. When each agency completes an item of business that affects another agency, it is automatically updated and transferred on the other agencies' system. "Matching arrest data with court disposition data and so on is a real problem nationally," explained Usery. "But with our system, when there's an arrest by law enforcement, that information goes into the arrest and DA's databases, where the information and case numbers are cross linked." So, if a user in the district attorney's system enters the case number, that user can track a subject from arrest to the court and on to any incarceration. This can also be done with prisoner identification numbers and arrest numbers. In addition, the system stores RAP (Record of Arrests and Prosecution) sheets, so users can determine a subject's past history as well.
Crossing Agency Barriers
Breaking down the barriers between the agencies involved in the project was CICJIS' biggest challenge. Law-enforcement agencies in particular are notoriously reluctant to share their databases, and Colorado's agencies were no exception. "Politically, there were very strong barriers to this project. We were fighting autonomy issues and agencies' unwillingness to open up their systems and allow access to their back-end databases," Usery said. "A system like this even goes across the bureaucracy of funding; in government, things just aren't funded this way. We had to go against all the processes that have been set up for years."
One of the keys to overcoming agency reluctance was to continue allowing each agency to manipulate the data as per usual. Agencies aren't forced to use a certain language and can continue to maintain the data on their legacy systems. Usery's team does, to an extent, control the data as it's translated from one system to another, but agencies are generally allowed to input the data as they've done historically.
The instinctive distrust the directors and members of each agency had of one another was the second barrier to overcome. To help smooth things over, the information systems directors for each agency took retreats and had off-site meetings to build their confidence in one another and each other's agencies.
At the time, Usery was the IS director for corrections. "Essentially, we were not all of one mind as to how this would work out, but we saw that something had to happen. So we each laid our distrust down on the table, and we realized that we were all doing difficult jobs -- not just trying to make life difficult for one another." Although the walls were tough for the IS directors to break down, the directors came together as a cohesive unit. "In becoming a unit, other people began to trust us more. The executive directors then felt that, if we could do it, they could get behind us, because we were their guys."
Beneficial on a Grand Scale
Usery said that CICJIS' biggest benefit is better public safety. "Nationally, criminal history records are very bad. Generally, if you pull a RAP sheet, you don't have the prosecution on there or they're not tied to the arrests very well -- and that's what they use for Brady Bill-type information. It's hard to tell what you've got and what you're dealing with." CICJIS, however, allows Colorado's criminal justice and public safety agencies to track a suspect's entire criminal history, especially beneficial to police officers needing to make on-the-spot decisions.
From the point of view of the criminal justice and public safety agencies, CICJIS allows them to make quick decisions on each subject, saving money and even lives. "When an offender comes into corrections, you have just a day to make a decision on where to put the offender in a level of security. Most people think that it's like 'Law and Order' on TV -- that they just get sent off to prison and it's done. But in prison, the administrators have to make decisions quickly, because prisons are overcrowded, and it's a huge price difference between putting someone in a high level of security and a minimum level of security. If you underclass someone, you're putting the people at risk, because you may be letting out someone who is dangerous to the citizenry. Without good access to a criminal history, which is what that decision is based on, you run the risk of doing that, and, unfortunately, it happens all the time," Usery said.
Advice: "Fight for It"
Thanks to the innovation shown by CICJIS, Usery receives quite a few requests for advice from states and cities across the United States and around the world. While some ask technical questions, Usery said that most ask how something like that made it through the Legislature and how they got everyone to agree. "Some people believed in the project and were willing to get ugly about it. Once the dust settled, however, everything was all apple pie and motherhood -- everyone loved it. Any advice I have for people, and I know that this sounds like childhood advice, but like anything, you have to be willing to fight for it. Just when it seems it's as scary and as dark as it can get, everything will open up. That's what happened with CICJIS."
July Table of Contents
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.