Connecting the Dots in the Criminal Justice System

Stephen DeAngelis

September 22, 2006

On the heels of the 9/11 attacks, intelligence and law enforcement organizations were criticized for not sharing information. The challenge of collecting, correlating, and analyzing mountains of data is daunting and requires automation to make it as effective as possible. A Washington Post article by Theresa Vargas on the difficulties of tracking criminals (even after they have been caught and taken into custody) demonstrates why connecting-the-dots is so difficult [“Inmate Tracking System Breeds Errors,” 19 Sep 2006]. Vargas begins her article with the following story:

Christopher T. Broady appeared last week on a wanted poster under the words printed in bold: “PRISONER ESCAPE.” But he didn’t escape. He didn’t even run. Instead, the accused killer was allowed to walk out of the Prince William County jail in a moment of confusion between court and jail officials.

Ouch! I’m pleased to report that Broady was reapprehended. Although Broady’s case is not the norm, the conditions that created his “jail break” are not that unusual. Consider the flip side of that scenario — being kept in jail longer than you were supposed to be. That is exactly what happened to another inmate.

Months earlier, the same jail had kept another inmate, Fernando Cruz, confined two months too long. The problem, officials said, was that his last name was listed in court computers as “Antonio Cruz.” To the jail, it was just “Cruz.”

Vargas points out that criminal justice systems across the country face similar problems, but some do a better job than others. Problems most often arise when human errors cause misidentification of prisoners.

For some, it can create a situation in which a deleted hyphen or a “Smith” spelled “Smyth” can mean an inmate’s jail records won’t match the court records. The growing immigrant population is particularly susceptible because of the less obvious spellings and the tendency for some to use two last names. … “The easiest thing would be if the systems could talk, if we could have systems that just work together,” said Susie Doyel of the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office. “I think September 11 brought that home. We had so many systems that didn’t talk to each other.”

Eliminating human errors is only part of the problem for both law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The individuals that they are tracking or looking for don’t want to be properly identified or found.

Corrections officers tell story after story of inmates lying about their identities — the scared 19-year-old who gives his neighbor’s name and address, the convicted felon who claims to be a sibling with a clean record, the inmate who memorizes another inmate’s Social Security number and personal information in hopes of sneaking out early.

The intelligence community has even more difficulty as they confront fake passports and other forged identity documents. This is where biometrics enters the picture.

In such cities as Miami, San Antonio and Los Angeles, which have large, diverse populations, criminal justice officials learned long ago not to depend on names to track inmates. Instead, inmates are fingerprinted and assigned an identifying number that stays with them for life. Their numbers are used to access information in a centralized database that is shared by the courts and jails.

Resilient systems seamlessly share information. Automated rules ensure that only necessary information is provided in order to protect individual civil liberties. Resilient systems also gather and compare all available data, be it textual or biometric. Where ambiguities occur, those authorized and capable of making further checks are automatically alerted. The stakes are high. Connecting-the-dots will become more important, not less, as we move into the future. Securing law abiding populations from those intent on doing them harm will continue to be a priority and information exchange and correlation will be part of the solution. The CIA’s new director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, understands the importance of improving the coordination between collection and analysis [“New Chief is Critical of Barriers WIthin CIA,” by Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 19 Sep 2006].

Hayden told agency employees yesterday that their intelligence activities are too segmented, saying that operations officers who collect intelligence need to work more closely with the analysts who interpret what it means. … “The collectors are over here and the analysts over there. We are too segmented, and thinking has been driven by focusing on their own piece of the action,” Hayden said in an interview, in which he expanded on the remarks to his staff.

I started Enterra Solutions to address just such barriers — to break down organizational silos in order to address emerging challenges holistically. Vargas and Pincus both identified how critical this is for ensuring America remains a safe place to live and raise families.