Fighting Crime with Zeroes and Ones:

When you say "infrastructure" most people think roads, bridges, and tunnels. That's fine. But these conduits of physical goods were more crucial to the economy...
by | August 17, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

When you say "infrastructure" most people think roads, bridges, and tunnels.

That's fine. But these conduits of physical goods were more crucial to the economy of 50 years ago. Today, informational infrastructure is the crucial driver of the economy.

Which leads us to one infrastructure project which, if successful, could save government billions of dollars while dramatically improving quality. That is the cross-platform, inter-agency, inter-governmental digitization of criminal justice data.

In a high-tech era, the world of criminal justice is buried in an avalanche of paper and incompatible data systems. This results in untold costs to manually search, send, and store information. Intuitively, a digitized system would eventually result in reduced costs--though no one has managed it yet.

For at least two decades, the criminal justice community has recognized that information is the ultimate crime fighting tool. Imagine a world in which criminal records, arrest warrants, mug shots, fingerprints, DNA records and more are searchable, sharable, and securely managed in a digital form. Imagine if the border patrol, coast guard, FBI, DEA and local law enforcement could seamlessly share information. Not enough for you? Let's extend the digital information sharing globally, and connect Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies. Think what that could mean in the war on terror. As the 9/11 Commission Report concluded: "The U.S. government did not find a way of pooling information," recommending the need for better information sharing among the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the military and other agencies involved in homeland security.

In the late 1990s, the concept of global crime data sharing was even given a name: the Global Criminal Justice Information Sharing Advisory Commission, a statutorily created entity that reports to the Attorney General. So far, however, the notion of a digitized, cross-platform, cross-agency information sharing system is like the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow: Often sought, never caught.

Is a global tool simply too much to imagine? How about if local law enforcement could share information with prosecutors, parole agencies, correctional facilities and the court system? Court appearances, arrest warrants, parole violations, and other critical information shared across governmental boundaries could revolutionize our ability to track criminals, solve cases, and move trials through the courts much more efficiently.

Some such systems have been tried, but the results so far have been mixed at best. As a 2008 report from the Center for Technology in Government put it: "Initiatives like these are typically complex, difficult, and prone to failure."


The logic of digitization is powerful, but the barriers are potent.

Consider the effort in Harris County, Texas, known as the Justice Information Management System (JIMS). The effort began in 1977, and was over a decade in development. It is a large operation, with over 250 million criminal and civil records on file. It is managed by a staff of 43 county employees, and is widely accessed. The user community includes more than 18,000 individuals, not only from numerous county and agencies, but also 11 state agencies, 15 Federal agencies, and over 800 subscribers. Subscribers, which include both citizens and agencies, must have signed a contract with Harris County to access public records online.

According to their web site, Harris County criminal cases are filed through the District Attorney and the District Clerk's Office. During case initiation, law enforcement agencies and county personnel enter all pertinent data about the defendant and the criminal case into the JIMS system.

Once a case reaches the courts, the online record is continually updated to reflect the activities occurring in the case.

These are impressive capabilities, but the system is limited in scope. Although Harris County includes the city of Houston, information about individuals held by the city is not included. Given its age, the JIMS system is limited by its legacy database. There are also plans to enhance the system to include open warrants, address records, pawnshop data, gang information, and vehicle registration.

The ultimate power of digitization--the ability to share information across boundaries--has yet to be fully realized. The technology is there. The FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) exist, but the ready means of sharing and utilizing them is still developing.

At the state level, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have major projects aimed at criminal justice information sharing. Again, the success is mixed. According to the Center for Technology in Government, in the Delaware effort "not all important agencies are participating in the system. As a consequence, important information is not shared among the justice community."§ion=2

These state efforts all depend to some extend on various types of federal grants.

Is the Future Coming Soon?

Interestingly, the Harris County effort as well as the state initiatives in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Delaware, were all launched prior to 1996. It is quite possible that now may be the time when the concept of cross-boundary digital criminal justice information sharing may be ready to finally bear fruit. There are three reasons this just might be so:

1) Crime has changed - Drugs, terrorism, cyber crime, gangs, and the need for enhanced homeland security are putting phenomenal pressure on public safety. As criminals have advanced, so too must crime-fighting tools.

2) Technology has changed - Technological advancements may make truly digital information sharing feasible for the first time ever.

3) The Funding has changed - Between the stimulus bill, which may enable state investment in IT infrastructure, and funding from the Department of Homeland Security, there may finally be the sort of investment needed to reap the potential savings and effectiveness benefits of digitization.

The biggest barriers are now organizational rather than technical: getting the various agencies--local, county, regional, state, federal, and international--to play nicely in the sandbox. It points out one of the enduring conundrums of democratic governance: How can we coordinate the actions of various independent yet interdependent government entities? How can you get your right hand to know what somebody else's left hand is doing?

This isn't just a turf battle--there are legitimate and important security, privacy and legal concerns surrounding this sort of information. Gaining agreement on protocols is a treacherous and time consuming process, and the technology and the law are changing at a rate that inter-agency coordination councils have a hard time keeping up with.

Digitization is the holy grail of IT cost savings. Are we ready to take on the challenge in criminal justice?

John O'Leary ( is the executive editor of the Ash Institute's Better, Faster, Cheaper web site, and coauthor of the book "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon..." to be published by the Harvard Business School Press in Fall 2009.