A case of arrested development

A Justice Department initiative to develop a nationwide system for identifying

and booking crime suspects may remain stalled in Florida by a lack of funding

next year.

The Joint Automated Booking System (JABS) would standardize arrest

procedures, making sure that law enforcement officials collect the same

information every time they make an arrest and provide the necessary data

to maintain a national offender database.

JABS also would be linked to an electronic fingerprint database, reducing

the time it takes to identify a suspect from weeks to hours.

Justice officials had hoped to begin expanding the 3-year-old program

beyond its test base in Florida starting in 2001, but the fiscal 2001 budget

does not provide the $19.5 million that the department needs.

"If [the 2001 budget] comes back the way it is now, we'll only be in

a maintenance mode and can't further deploy it," said Brian McGrath, program

manager for JABS. "We're appealing the budget, and if we get the appeal,

we'll get all the components deploying at some pace."

Calls made to the House and Senate Judiciary committees to discuss

the budgeting dilemma were not returned.

JABS would integrate information across agency lines as well as across

state lines. With JABS, Justice would collect arrest data, including fingerprints,

mug shots and other information, from five federal law enforcement agencies — the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization

Service, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons.

The electronic system would also reduce the reams of paperwork filed

by law enforcement agencies when they arrest and book suspects.

The JABS program came out of the Clinton administration's National Performance

Review — now called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

Justice officials agreed that the arrest process was time-consuming and

redundant, and resulted in streams of paper records that have become a problem

to store.

The prototype for the system has been used in Florida by the DEA since

1996. DEA officers there have compiled fingerprints on more than 2,000 suspects

in south Florida.

The DEA began feeding its arrest data into the JABS database in July,

marking the start of the nationwide JABS effort. But further expansion

depends largely on future funding.

One official said budgeters might have cut the funding back because

the department asked for it late in the process and may not have given officials

all the background information they needed.

Congress may also have questioned changes in program costs. Originally

estimated to cost $160 million to deploy, Justice now expects to get JABS

running for $40 million, said the official, speaking on background. The

department was able to reduce the costs dramatically by redesigning it to

run via the Internet rather than phone lines.

Other information technology projects pushed by Justice have also gotten

short shrift by Congress in recent years.

The FBI's Information Sharing Initiative, which would give agents the

ability to share and sift through information on active cases, was derailed

because of congressional concerns about past cost overruns on FBI computer

projects. Today, the FBI's plan is called e-FBI, and like JABS, it is based

on the Internet, not telephone systems.

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