Bringing Criminal Justice Into the Information Age

By Dan Orzech

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Kerry Dean Stevenson is the sort of guy you -- and the police -- would like to keep away from your kids. Stevenson, a Minnesota school bus driver, is also a convicted sexual offender with a history of violations against children as long as your arm. But when Stevenson stood before a Minnesota judge in 2001 to be sentenced for criminal sexual misconduct, the record in front of the judge contained only three convictions for similar offenses.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. Missing from the record in front of the judge were 12 other sex crimes Stevenson had committed over the last 20 years -- not to mention his convictions for driving under the influence, theft and escaping from police custody.

The judge couldn't see the data because Minnesota's 1,100 criminal justice agencies, like those in the rest of the country, use a hodgepodge of various computer systems, most of which don't talk to each other.

In a pioneering effort, however, Minnesota's courts, prisons and police departments are in the midst of a massive data re-engineering project, which promises to break down the barriers to sharing information between agencies. The system, which is called CriMNet, is being built using Java and XML.

Stevenson is not the only criminal in Minnesota whose record is incomplete. The state estimates that more than 100,000 convictions are missing from its books because some piece of information is inaccurate or incomplete.

And Minnesota is far from unique. Two months before he helped fly a plane into the World Trade Center, Mohammed Atta was stopped by police in Palm Beach County, Fla., for a traffic violation. He was released, despite the fact that a warrant had been issued for his arrest in neighboring Broward County for failing to appear in court on an invalid license charge. The Palm Beach police who stopped Atta had no way of seeing the records from Broward County.

Police Officers at Risk

CriMNet got its start in the mid-1990s, after a rash of vicious crimes were committed in rural areas of the state by criminals who had left urban areas. The small-town police who first responded to the crimes had no idea who the criminals were, which put them at risk, says CriMNet executive director David Billeter. "Everyone wondered - and rightly so -- why they didn't have this information that other officers had," he says.

The first several years of the project were spent getting buy-in from Minnesota's various law enforcement agencies, as well as upgrading several older legacy systems so they could be included in the project. Serious development began last year, and the main core of the application is now up and running on eight Linux and Windows 2000 servers in the state data center in St. Paul.

In building CriMNet, Minnesota is sticking closely to standards such as Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and XML. "No one's ever done this before," says Billeter, "and we wanted to minimize our risk by being able to shift platforms if necessary."

The state insisted, for example, that the system, which is being built by systems integrator Mobiam, of Alpharetta, Ga., run on both Linux and Windows 2000.

It also required that the application be fully J2EE compliant. "Following the J2EE standard," says Billeter, "means we can switch application servers if we want."

CriMNet currently runs on the open source Java application server Jboss, which was a natural fit, according to Billeter, because it's both J2EE compliant and requires no license fees. "As we scale up, we'll probably go to a different application server," says Billeter, "but why not use Jboss for development, when there's no cost?"

For CriMNet to work, more than just computer technology is required. The system mandates the use of consistent business practices throughout Minnesota's criminal justice system. Each sheriff's office and police department, for example, will have to collect and record the same information from people who have been arrested.

XML is key to this process, allowing Minnesota to specify standard ways of recording data. The state has created an XML schema, or data dictionary, for criminal justice information, and is working on the standard with several other efforts in the area, such as the LegalXML project of the non-profit Oasis consortium. A common standard will allow data exchanges with agencies outside the state. Minnesota is already exploring such exchanges with neighboring states like Wisconsin and Iowa.

The data in the CriMNet system includes electronic fingerprints and photos, as well as an individual's record of convictions, probation status, and whether there are outstanding arrest warrants. The system will also tell police whether there are restrictions on driving or alcohol, and if the person is prohibited from carrying a firearm, or has a restraining order.

That's a big improvement over the old approach, where a county sheriff who wanted to know if a person he has detained has any warrants pending from other counties in the state would have to call each jurisdiction separately to find the information. Now, the sheriff uses a standard Web browser to run a query on CriMNet, much like an internet search engine.

The system is more than just a data repository, however. "It allows people to subscribe to certain pieces of data," says Billeter. "If a particular defendant is sentenced, that information can be sent to people who need to know about it, rather than making them check every day."

CriMNet was specifically designed to be more than simply a large database, says Billeter. "Several other states have tried to build similar systems," he says, "by create very big data warehouses. What we're doing is interconnecting the systems so everyone can share others data."

In implementing CriMNet, Minnesota started with the state-wide systems, like the state corrections, courts and parole systems. From there, it is working its way down to incorporate smaller agencies. So far, more than 100 local police departments and county sheriffs are online. In January of next year, the state plans to hook up to CriMNet every criminal justice agency in Carver county, which is located near Minneapolis/St. Paul.