Linking public safety systems

While e-government and public expectations are driving the effort to better link information systems among courts and public safety agencies, integration of such systems is spotty.

"It's pretty disparate around the country," said Kelly Harris, director of Justice Information Technology Services for SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit group. With funding from the Justice Department, the consortium provides state and local governments with technical assistance to improve and connect their information systems.

By integrating systems — that is, sharing information between the courts and justice, public safety and social service agencies — officials can make better informed and more accurate decisions, thereby enhancing public safety and increasing public trust and confidence in the judicial system, Harris said.

Other benefits include faster and simultaneous access to data from multiple locations, greater efficiency, reduction of data entry errors and redundant information, and improved public access, she said.

The organization is trying to gauge the many statewide and local integratio activities. Harris said it takes time to integrate legacy systems that contain silos of information. According to its site (www.search.org),at least 38 states and 18 municipalities are at some stage of developingan integrated model, ranging from the planning stages to operational systems.

"It's a huge political issue," she said, referring to the process of integrating systems. Some states have been proactive. Colorado, for example, implemented an integrated system in 1998, but Harris said the effort required lobbying state lawmakers and getting funding.

She said it's difficult for states to move fast because it takes time to get support and develop and implement statewide standards. It's even more difficult for some states, such as Texas, that have a decentralized judicial system where each jurisdiction operates autonomously.

In some cases, local municipalities — such as Maricopa County, Ariz., which is planning a countywide system — can move faster because it's easier to convey the political and public importance and need of integrated systems,she said.

Harris, along with colleague Lawrence Webster, presented a session on justice information sharing at the National Center for State Courts conference in Baltimore Aug. 14.

"There isn't a common understanding of what integration is," said Webster, who described the many different types of systems that exist and their limited capabilities.

They also explained technological innovations that could help justice and public safety agencies share better and more secure data, such as personal igital assistants, Extensible Markup Language, and biometric devices for identification or verification of an identity.

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