Justice Eyes National Data Exchange System

Justice Eyes National Data Exchange System

Paul Kendall

By Steve LeSueur, Staff Writer

A seemingly modest Department of Justice study to improve criminal justice information sharing among state and local jurisdictions is laying the groundwork for a national architecture that facilitates the exchange of data among information systems at all levels of government.

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives, which is conducting the study under a $125,000 grant, will define an architecture that allows government organizations to exchange criminal justice files and data, such as fingerprints, arrest records and outstanding warrants.

The agency selected NASIRE "because it wants an information architecture that flows not just vertically within criminal justice, but also horizontally across all the disciplines," said Gerry Wethington, who is leading the NASIRE study. He is Missouri's director of the information systems division for the state's highway patrol.

Wethington's task force will deliver its recommendations at the October meeting of NASIRE, the primary organization of state chief information officers.

The project is likely to receive additional funding for three more years, and might include pilot projects in which selected states test the proposed standards and architecture.

The common architecture will not be limited to criminal justice systems but would include other functional areas such as welfare, health and transportation systems.

The Justice Department's desire to facilitate data exchanges that go outside the traditional criminal justice network has been prompted in part by new laws mandating information sharing among a variety of agencies, said Wethington.

The Brady Law, for example, requires background checks to determine whether gun buyers are illegal immigrants, were committed to mental institutions or were dishonorably discharged from the military ? information that is not maintained by criminal justice agencies.

Other laws require information sharing regarding people convicted of specific sex crimes, domestic abuse, and elderly abuse.

"We have to think in broader terms than just criminal justice systems," said Paul Kendall, general counsel for the Office of Justice Programs, who oversees the NASIRE study for the Justice Department. "We're finding that much of the information we need comes out of education, social services, transportation and other places."

The drive to establish common standards for information sharing should open up many business opportunities for systems integrators and other IT companies, government and industry officials said.

"More jurisdictions will be interested in moving quickly toward data sharing," said Nick Pattakos, director of technical solutions for Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif.

Kendall estimated that the Justice Department will award about $500 million in grant funding this year to state and municipal governments for various IT projects.

And late last year, President Clinton signed the Crime Identification Technology Act of 1998, authorizing $250 million annually ? $1.25 billion over five years ? specifically for state and local governments and courts to integrate their criminal justice information systems. Congress must still appropriate the money for these grants as part of this year's budget process.

Some of the chief technical problems to integrating systems include issues relating to privacy and security, but the more difficult issues to resolve are political and cultural, officials said. The latter involves questions of turf, such as which agency owns the information, who decides what information will be shared and who may have access to it.

The grant program, however, gives the Justice Department considerable leverage in overcoming local resistance to integration, said Kendall.

"We are in a unique position to provide leadership in this area because we touch so many jurisdictions with funding," he said.

He emphasized that the department is not trying to dictate a particular solution. "This is all being developed by the state and local people," he said. "We're using our grant money to gently move this forward."

State and industry people said this strategy should bring the desired results.

"Dangling money in front of people helps them to put aside territorial issues at the local level," said Holli Ploog, president of DynCorp Management Resources Inc., Reston, Va., a systems integrator that works with state and local governments.

Industry officials also are participating in the architecture study. The nine-member NASIRE task force met May 21 with officials from Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. Litton-PRC Inc., TRW Inc., and five other IT companies to talk about technical issues related to data sharing.

"The private sector needs to be at the table because, at the end of the day, business will provide the solutions to make this happen," said Kendall.

Pattakos, who represented Oracle at the May 21 meeting, said the rise of Internet standards has created a basic framework for expanding data exchange among government agencies.

He also said national standards should not be developed as a top-down mandate, and that local jurisdictions should maintain their autonomy and control over their information systems.

Nearly all the states have begun efforts to integrate criminal justice systems within their states, but only a handful have progressed very far toward this goal, said Kelly Harris, director of justice information technology services for the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics in Sacramento, Calif.

The private, non-profit organization helps governments apply information and identification technologies to criminal justice and is assisting NASIRE with the study.

In Kansas, for example, officials are integrating more than six different state and local agencies and departments that deal with criminal justice, such as the highway patrol, courts, prisons and juvenile justice.

Today, when Kansas agencies exchange information, they must build custom interfaces between systems or resort to time-consuming phone calls and paperwork, said Don Heiman, chief information technology officer for Kansas and a member of Wethington's task force. Sometimes critical information simply is not shared.

But when the three-year integration project is completed in September, the participating Kansas agencies will be able to share electronically information such as outstanding warrants and arrests, fingerprint identification, vehicle files and licenses and docket and sentencing information.

"One of the most important benefits of an integrated system is that it protects the safety of the officers on the street, because they are more prepared and less surprised when they go in on a call," Heiman said.

As the NASIRE task force develops a national architecture, it can look to ongoing efforts in Kansas and other jurisdictions for best practices and architecture, said Harris.

Although neither NASIRE nor the Justice Department intends to require state and local jurisdictions to adopt the recommended architecture, Wethington said government IT officials likely will be receptive to their proposals.

"State CIOs are so busy that they're glad we're doing this study," he said. "Most of them say, 'Just tell me the standards for interoperability. Tell me what we need to do to exchange data, and we'll do it.' "

If done properly, "there would be no limit on who could share information," said Richard Webb, North Carolina's assistant secretary for information technology and a member of the NASIRE task force. All government agencies should be able to plug in to the data sharing architecture.

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