A case in point
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Nov 17, 2002
Strengthening a unique intergovernmental collaboration, Washington, D.C., and several federal criminal justice agencies recently expanded and enhanced a secure Web portal used to quickly and efficiently share justice information online.
The portal, officials maintain, has become one of the leading examples of an integrated criminal justice system. It demonstrates how agencies with different procedures and information needs can jointly develop a system that benefits them all, without compromising any individual agency's security or data management requirements.
It's also another important example of the type of interagency data-sharing systems that have become a priority for many government organizations in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks.
Fifteen local and federal agencies — from the Metropolitan Police Department to the Federal Bureau of Prisons — are collaborating on the District of Columbia Justice Information System (Justis), providing data electronically that individuals previously had to obtain through much less efficient means.
"We needed to figure out a way to share data among those agencies in a more effective way than had been done by hand or by sneaker network," said Chief Judge Rufus King III of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. "There's a lot of traffic that has to go back and forth between different criminal justice agencies. The police share arrest information. The courts need to have bail reports from pretrial service agencies. We need to keep track of people on probation, or corrections needs to know who's coming their way."
Participating agencies voluntarily provide access to portions of their data via the secure Justis Web site but still retain control over which agencies can view that information. For example, only three other departments are legally authorized to view data kept by the Department of Human Services' Youth Services Administration, said Earl Gillespie, information technology liaison officer in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, who has overseen development of Justis.
Authorized agency employees need only a Web browser and an Internet connection to query the data — which includes scanned images of paper documents — by name, Social Security number, arrest record and other methods.
Justis is essentially a gateway to the participating agencies' data management systems. It does not collect, centralize or house data, Gillespie said, but instead culls data that agencies have branded as useful or needed by others. The advantage of this approach is that agencies don't have to give up control of their data and can protect the integrity of their legacy systems. Likewise, policies and controls for granting permission to access data via Justis are set and managed by each agency on its own systems.
A Timely Enhancement
Justis was unveiled in the summer of 2001, but in its most recent phase, more agencies and a number of important features were added, officials said.
Among the new enhancements is a "push" capability in which data that is regularly needed by an agency is transferred automatically from one agency to another, as opposed to the receiving office having to request the data each time. Recently, the Metropolitan Police Department began a "core data transfer" of arrest information, which it sends every 30 minutes to agencies that need it, such as the Pretrial Services Agency.
Agencies can use any of five formats to exchange data, such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) or a spreadsheet created in Microsoft Corp.'s Excel software.
In another enhancement, the department adds a unique tracking number — composed of the arrest number plus another seven digits — for each arrest with the goal of reducing duplication of records and discrepancies across agencies.
"You could see how that's critical in following a case through," said Janice Bergin, operations director for the Pretrial Services Agency, referring to the tracking number. "It's going to be fault-tolerant in that we're not going to be altering that number in any way. And then every other system that grabs the number the same way will have the same number linked to that arrest."
Statute mandates that the Pretrial Agency interview and investigate individuals charged in local and federal courts with misdemeanor and felony cases, as well as traffic and regulatory cases, she said. The agency makes bail recommendations and supervises those released on personal recognizance with conditions. It processes up to 25,000 people annually.
Although the agency has been automated since 1976, Bergin said, the core data transfer will provide electronic information that will enable it to manage lists more easily — that is, "to know how many people we have done reports on and how many more we have to do."
Agency officials are designing an application to accept the core data transfers and hope to have it online by February, she added.
The group that created Justis, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) of the District of Columbia, now also offers a public Web site (www.cjcc.dc.gov) with information for victims and witnesses, youth-oriented social services and a set of re-entry resources for ex- offenders, Gillespie said. Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and the federal government supply the information.
Development of Justis began more than two years ago. Gillespie said D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams wanted to improve the quality of law enforcement and city services, but another reason was that "data processing for a number of years had been so bad it was falling apart." Initially a voluntary group of federal and district justice officials and now an independent D.C. agency, CJCC was empowered to correct a process of information sharing that had become cumbersome and time-consuming.
"I don't want to say it's been bad in the past, but I think we're at a point where it is particularly good. I think the level of cooperation among agencies has been outstanding," said King, who also heads the Information Technology Advisory Committee of CJCC. The committee is responsible for overseeing the project.
But officials credit Williams and Margret Nedelkoff Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, among others, as the principal champions behind the information-sharing system's creation. As a crucial first step in that process, participating agencies signed a memorandum of understanding recognizing one another's autonomy.
"We all started with the knowledge that each agency has its own internal needs and that the agency has to address those needs first before it can commit to share with other agencies," King said. "We've worked very hard to maintain that atmosphere and do this by collaboration and not by fiat."
Finding a Model
Once the basic dynamics of the relationship were agreed upon, the committee, Gillespie and the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer began looking for an architectural model to jump-start their project. They looked north to the integrated Pennsylvania Justice Network, a similar system in which local and state criminal justice agencies share information.
Importantly, "this architecture does not require that there be a single data repository in that people physically share the data," said Suzanne Peck, D.C.'s chief technology officer. "The data is maintained as separate, segregated to the original agency and yet available to all of the agency heads, really very rapidly. We have only been at this for a year and a half and greatly [benefited] by the fact that we took Pennsylvania's best practices."
The District did not take a single line of code from Pennsylvania, she said, but did use it as a model. "We took that architecture, quickly recoded for about $3 million and extended the system not only in terms of numbers of partners, but in terms of functionality as well."
A key benefit of the basic approach to Justis is that an agency's data is never stored out of its control. "Your data is read-only and is view-screen viewable, but it is not a mechanism by which external agencies can create extracts of your data and store your data," Peck said. "It's all of the levels of security that you would expect."
"We are using a similar architecture to build a virtual data repository and data sharing among the district's social services agencies and family court, the family court's agency," she said.
In December 2000, with the help of KPMG Consulting Inc. (now BearingPoint Inc.), a successful "proof of concept," or pilot project, was developed involving the Pretrial Services Agency, Metropolitan Police Department, and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency using the query or "inquiry application" module. Following that, Justis went live with about 10 agencies in August 2001.
"What is really important here is the way the Justis system is modeled permits people to do this without having to go through the great expense, time and effort of changing their system," Bergin said. "So there is work for all of us but it's not the major overhaul or replacements of your systems in order to share information."
Another benefit is that Justis is "indifferent" to the host system's maturity, Peck said. "We are simply reaching in and taking that host system's data as it is made available to us by the agencies," she said. "But we really have no view whether your system runs fast or slow, is old or new, has robust capabilities or not. We believe this is the first in the nation at this level of sophistication."
Gillespie said enhancements planned for the system include court data transfers and a notification system in which a probation officer can input a parolee's identification number to receive an alert via beeper or e-mail if the parolee is arrested.
Who's on board
The District of Columbia Justice Information System links the following justice and public agencies:
* Superior Court of the District of Columbia
* Office of the Corporation Counsel
* D.C. Metropolitan Police Department
* District of Columbia Pretrial Services Agency
* Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
* D.C. Department of Corrections
* Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia
* Office of the D.C. Corrections Trustee
* Public Defender Service
* U.S. Parole Commission
* D.C. Department of Human Services' Youth Services Administration
* U.S. Bureau of Prisons
* U.S. Probation Office
* Child and Family Services Agency
* D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles
Source: Criminal Justice Coordinating Council