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North Carolina criminal justice takes data sharing to new level: Integrated offender information application to save time, money and lives

Written by Candy Phelps

Criminal justice professionals in North Carolina are saying goodbye to the virtual labyrinth that once contained the state’s offender records and ushering in a new age of state-of-the-art records management.

Until recently, mounting data from dozens of disparate sources was hindering North Carolina agencies from effectively sharing information and proactively maintaining public safety. One incident tragically pointed out that the poor records management system could be costing lives.

Part of the impetus for the creation of Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services (CJLEADS) was the 2008 slaying of Eve Carson, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior. The suspects in her slaying were repeat offenders whom the court system overlooked multiple times while they were on probation. An investigation found that part of the reason they were overlooked was because there was no central information system for law enforcement officials to access and no efficient way of knowing when offenders on probation were charged with additional crimes.

Before CJLEADS, criminal justice professionals mined millions of data records across North Carolina’s 100 counties and different criminal justice agencies to get a complete picture of an individual’s record. Much of the data was incomplete, sometimes there were multiple records on the same individual with slight name variations, and often the information could be in the system but difficult to locate.

“We’re pulling data from many data sources and trying to match that data for a single person,” said Kay Meyer, program manager for the North Carolina Office of the State Controller (OSC).

Not long after Carson’s murder, government and criminal justice leaders realized that the amount of data and the number of places it was being stored was becoming unwieldy and too difficult to navigate. So, in 2008, new legislation directed the OSC to develop and design an integrated criminal justice application. SAS was selected to analyze available data and develop and implement an integrated solution.

The advantage of CJLEADS is that it will bring together in one place criminal justice data from multiple systems to help create a clearer picture of an offender, and it will be available to all criminal justice professionals.

The initial version of the pilot program was implemented within 145 days of the government mandate for preliminary testing and feedback from test users, said Cammie Dunnagan, CJLEADS SAS project manager and manager of consulting services for SAS Solutions OnDemand. The production pilot program was initially rolled out only in Wake County, N.C., and was wrapping up in early November 2010. Meyer said there will be a brief period of review and then the statewide deployment will begin in January 2011. Once deployment is complete, an estimated 33,000 users will have access to the system, including law enforcement officers, judges, magistrates, district attorneys, clerks, probation officers, prison officials and juvenile court counselors. The system will house information on approximately 13 million offenders, Meyer said.

How it Works

CJLEADS is a Web-based software application that integrates data currently stored in state criminal justice databases in an effort to provide comprehensive information on an offender through a single portal secured network. It provides searchable, up-to-date criminal information in a centralized location to any authorized user on a state computer with access to the Internet.

“Now we’re able to give them that complete profile of a person in one single application,” Meyer said. “It gives you more information so you can be more proactive and more knowledgeable about the person you might encounter.”

The solution is hosted in the SAS technical environment, where it receives data feeds from contributing agencies. The software transforms that information by using data integration and DataFlux technology, which sorts, cleans and clusters the data. The information is then presented in a searchable interface with up-to-date, comprehensive information from disparate sources on each offender.

Previously, lacking a central, integrated offender database, employees were spending thousands of hours searching for information, often manually typing the same information into disparate systems. This time-consuming process delayed decision-making and increased the risk of overlooking critical details.

One of the main benefits of SAS’s application is the search mechanism, Dunnagan said. There are a variety of ways that users can search for an individual. They can search by name, address, Social Security number or any other criteria. The more known information, the more a user can narrow the search. The software filters the files so the most relevant information comes up at the top of the list.

One of the biggest differences between the interface of many of the old systems and CJLEADS is the user-friendly design, Dunnagan said. Many of the old systems were text based, whereas CJLEADS contains images, clickable tabs and links, and special icons to alert officers of various categories of criminals or offenders.

“CJLEADS is built on the newer technology, so it’s very much similar to what they are used to seeing in a Windows browser,” Dunnagan said. “It’s laid out in a much easier-to-read format. We’ve gotten tons of positive feedback on the user interface.”

A feature that was included as one of the main objectives in the project is the “watch list,” which provides the capability for criminal justice professionals to identify persons of interest and add them to a watch list. The CJLEADS system monitors information about the individuals on that watch list and alerts the criminal justice professional when one of those people has a change in status within the system. For example, probation/parole officers would be alerted if offenders they are tracking are charged with crimes anywhere in the state.

Any authorized user can set up a watch list. The user gets an e-mail each morning that tells him the number and type of alerts he has based on the watch list, and then he can click on a link, log into the system, and see details about the alerts. Meyer said they do not send sensitive information over e-mail because of security issues.

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

One of the glaring omissions in many of the previous data systems was the inability to store and view images of people.

Everyone knows that traffic stops are inherently perilous to police officers, which is why police organizations are constantly exploring better ways to ensure to a greater extent officer safety during traffic stops and other roadside contacts. Having more complete and accurate information about the individual before a vehicle is approached is essential to that safety. Vince Talucci, SAS’s senior criminal justice industry consultant for state and local government operations, said the CJLEADS/ SAS software solution will offer an incredibly rich tool to aid officers with their roadside contacts, including photos of offenders and DMV information on all citizens.

“What this system provides is access to that positive identification,” Talucci said. “That’s a huge officer safety, as well as a community safety, issue.”

Meyer said officers have asked if they could incorporate facial recognition technology into CJLEADS. They want to be able to take a photo of a person at a traffic stop or other contact and run it through the system for identification. “If we could ever provide that, it would be a huge benefit to law enforcement because we know that criminals lie to us,” Meyer said. That is a something they have identified as a possible future functionality, but that is not part of the project yet, she said.

Even without that function, CJLEADS is helping all criminal justice professionals—not just law enforcement officers—make quicker and more effective decisions.

“What we’ve done so far with CJLEADS is really about actionable decision making,” Meyer said. “It makes [users] more knowledgeable and potentially more efficient.”

Security

Security is always a primary concern with data sharing, especially with Web-based applications. Dunnagan said the SAS technical environment is completely secure and tested frequently for intrusions. As each new release of the application is deployed, penetration testing will be repeated to continue to ensure the security and integrity of the application.

In-house security is implemented via the CJLEADS administrative tool, which provides agencies with the ability to authorize individuals for access into CJLEADS and assign appropriate role-based security, according to a user’s security clearance level.

“That whole concept of data sharing was a big issue at the beginning of the project,” Meyer said. “We had an opportunity related to role-based security, so we spent a number of months at the beginning of the project designing those business rules.”

Also, a person has to be using an authorized state computer with an approved IP address to log into the system. “You can’t just go to your Starbucks and fire up CJLEADS,” Dunnagan said.

In addition, the system is completely auditable, Dunnagan said, so there is full accountability for each user. The application tracks everything, including who is searching for and printing what records and how many queries are coming from which agencies, etc. The state can view those logs for security as well as to measure how each agency and employee is utilizing the system.

In case of a natural disaster or major power outage, the state and SAS collaborated to develop a technical architecture design that provides two active data center sites to ensure for high availability and failover of the system. If one environment encounters a hardware failure or power outage, the remaining site can support all users until the first site is restored.

Future Challenges

One of the big challenges for CJLEADS during the initial configuration and moving forward is data quality and accuracy, Meyer said. Each source system identifies records according to its own business needs, so some data are old, incomplete or inconsistent. Because important, sometimes life-or-death decisions are made based on information in CJLEADS, accurate data integration is pivotal to the project’s success.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to improve data quality and emphasize how critical it is to capture accurate and complete data,” Meyer said.

Incorrect data may result in records being incorrectly merged together, resulting in a cluster that is defined as “high risk.” All high risk clusters are clearly identified in the system, and the project team continues to refine the data-merging process to reduce the number of isolated or single records. New business rules have been implemented, decreasing the number of high risk clusters by nearly 17 percent. In addition, as data quality issues are identified, detailed information is provided to the data source agencies where efforts are made to correct and clean the data values.

To improve the data’s consistency across all sources, the CJLEADS project is encouraging everyone to use National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) standards, which many of the agencies already followed.

One of the other challenges North Carolina faces is obtaining cellular coverage in rural or mountainous regions. “We do have areas where the major cellular suppliers just don’t have widespread coverage,” Meyer said. “For many of the really small, really rural agencies, they just don’t have the financial means to pay for monthly air cards.”

Meyer said they are working on gaining Internet access for some of those areas, and she is confident that in time, the cellular coverage will improve statewide.

Funding and Governance

According to the Office of the State Controller, costs for the project over a three-year period are approximately $27.4 million. Meyer said the cost will be well worth it in terms of hours saved due to improved efficiency and the “estimated value” of potentially saving lives, among other things.

“We really believe that the return on investment will be substantially higher than the cost of the application,” Meyer said. She noted that the intangible benefits of implementing the pilot application in Wake County alone are estimated to be more than $7 million annually.

The hosted CJLEADS application is highly scalable, and the next few years will see dozens of agencies across the state becoming involved in the program. Meyer said as of now, the project is state funded, so agencies do not incur individual costs other than paying for Internet access. However, future funding is uncertain.

A council of the leaders of state, local and federal criminal justice agencies has been established to provide governance, set direction and policy, and support the efforts to develop the CJLEADS application. The council will provide guidance on funding requirements and design the business rules of the program.

“So far we’ve gotten really positive feedback,” Meyer said. “The more they use it, the more excited they get, and the more they want the system to do. We’re definitely tracking future functionality.” 

A Success Story

Even though CJLEADS hasn’t been deployed statewide yet, criminal justice agencies are already reporting success with the new system. During an initial meeting and CJLEADS demonstration with Department of Insurance, investigators requested information about a fugitive they had been trying to arrest for a month and a half. The department had planned to conduct surveillance to apprehend the individual. Using the information from CJLEADS, they discovered that the person was scheduled to appear in New Hanover County court on a traffic charge. When the fugitive was called for court, investigators were present and took the individual into custody. The lead uncovered in CJLEADS saved three to four investigators several hours of surveillance and resulted in the arrest of a fugitive.

Candy Phelps is a freelance writer, editor and graphic designer. She can be reached at candybuster1@yahoo.com.



Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2010

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