District of Columbia and feds build high-level trust

The JUSTIS way

The chiefs of 15 municipal and federal agencies form the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, on which they are all equal members. Feds don't sit at the top of a hierarchy.

The council outsourced the task of creating a secure Web site that would let the agencies share information despite their disparate technical capabilities.

The system pulls information from agency databases without making changes.

The council meets monthly to discuss data sharing and address any problems. The council also established several subcommittees to grapple with technical issues such as data accuracy and duplication.

JUSTIS gives two city agencies access to data, even though they are not members of the council.

Rufus King III, chief judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, sits on the interagency Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Olivier Douliery

The District of Columbia's Justice Information System acts as a clearinghouse for sharing law-enforcement data among city and federal agencies.

JUSTIS is governed by a nonhierarchical council, where municipal and federal agency heads meet as equals, said Chief Judge Rufus King III of the D.C. Superior Court.

All the criminal justice agencies work with related data, King said. The arrest of a person by police touches off a chain of events that creates records in multiple agencies.

'It's clear that there are common elements of data that everybody involved with criminal justice will need to process,' King said. The data environment tends to be dynamic, because of the changing'and sometimes overlapping'status of people who have records in the system. Someone under arrest, for example, could be just out on bond for another charge, or might be wanted on a child support warrant or finishing up probation. Timeliness is crucial.

The District of Columbia, because of its unique political status, has a criminal justice system made up of city and federal agencies. Everyone has different lines of authority and different funding sources, King said.

'There's no way that you can have, for example, the D.C. Office of the Chief Technical Officer lay down the law to everybody,' King said.

Before JUSTIS, interagency attempts at sharing arrest and court records were ad hoc. 'Some were literally by sneaker network,' King said.

District agencies were at different levels of technical development, King said; one had just been weaned off rotary telephones.

In 1999, the heads of several justice agencies drew up a brief agreement that recognized the need for them to share data securely.

The resulting body, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, consists of the heads of 15 agencies and departments, ranging from Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Some CJCC members have even moved from municipal to federal status. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency became an independent federal agency in 2000. Because the District has no state government to assist it, the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 shifted some functions that states normally perform from District to federal jurisdiction.

The council hired KPMG Consulting Inc. (now BearingPoint Inc.) of McLean, Va., to build a secure Web site on which law enforcement agencies could share data regardless of their level of IT prowess. 'That was a challenge for us and a major strength of the system,' King said.

Participating agencies make a secure browser connection to a dedicated JUSTIS server owned by the city government, said CJCC executive director Nancy Ware. JUSTIS pulls data from other agency databases without making any changes to the original data stores.

No hierarchy

A Web site, www.cjcc.dc.gov, presents the public face of the project.

The council holds monthly meetings. Although executive director Ware sits on the CJCC ex officio, the council members made a conscious decision not to set up a hierarchy among themselves.

'Basically, the agencies attempt to provide a forum for information sharing and problem solving,' Ware said. 'They work very hard to interact with each other on an equitable basis, so that no one agency has power over another.'

An important subcommittee within CJCC is its Data Quality Alliance, whose members study ways to improve data accuracy and reconcile contradictory records.

'When you start sharing data, you find out different databases have different error rates,' King said.

The system automatically flags two entries that appear to be the same but have some minor differences, such as inconsistent birth dates, King said. JUSTIS flags the later of the two records.

CJCC's IT advisory council handles technical issues, and King credited the panel's liaison officer, Earl Gillespie, with supervising the contract to build JUSTIS.

Two city agencies, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Child and Family Services Agency, can share data through JUSTIS even though they do not belong to the CJCC, Ware said. The family services agency is one of JUSTIS' biggest users because it has to screen potential foster parents for criminal records.

JUSTIS is now at a critical juncture, King said. CJCC members want to make the data sharing system a permanent line item in an agency budget, probably within the Washington city government. Its current funding comes from grants.

Gillespie also is working with other federal agencies, such as the State Department, to bring them into the JUSTIS user community, Ware said.

Other projects in the works for JUSTIS, King said, include a data dictionary of standardized metadata and a notification service about new warrants and other updated information.

Users would also like to share nontext data such as photographs. 'Fingerprints would be the gold standard, but we're not there yet,' King said.

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