Author: Rick McCoy, CIO at Urban Lending Solutions
Digital transformation is a common theme these days that IT departments are focused on. It is more than just a buzzword or a trend. Digital transformation is really the realization that all companies are technology companies, because this is what the customer demands.
You might not be surprised to hear this, but one area that has traditionally struggled to keep up with digital transformation is the government – especially the criminal justice system. Criminal justice tends to be a paper-based system (lawyers love their pen and paper). As such, transforming their paper processes to digital ones is a big cultural shift. But it is not just about their love for paper that makes this transformation difficult, it is the tendency of the different systems in government to operate in silos.
Back in the late 90s we started talking about integrating the criminal justice systems together because the state had spent a lot of money on the police and courts system, and the legislature wanted to see if all the systems could talk to each other. At the time, everything was by hand. So you would go from the DA’s to the court and nothing was streamlined because everything was entered manually each time.
A group of CIOs formed from the courts, CBI, and the Corrections facilities started meeting to figure out how to work together. What is really interesting about this is that traditionally, some of these agencies did not have good working relationships. They had to learn how to establish a lot of trust in each other in order to tie their business processes together.
It was important to get everyone in the same room and talking to each other. Until now each system is assuming the other staff members don’t care. For instance, a DA might think the police don’t care because they aren’t giving them all the information the DA is requesting; however, there is often a good reason they haven’t furnished the information. Maybe that’s all the info the police department has at that time or they have spotty info because a defendant doesn’t tell you the truth. Once these people met often enough to establish a rapport, they started to understand the challenges the others were facing, and realized that if they worked together a little better that everyone would win, and that everyone had the best intentions. There was an awareness and an awakening that was really fun to observe. I have seen this multiple times in my career, and I always find it one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
Part of our project was not only to revamp what the District Attorney’s did, but enhance the communication between police, the courts, DA and corrections. We electronically hooked the systems together, which helped speed up the process of filing cases with increased accuracy. Here is where the cultural shift happened that I mentioned earlier. By standardizing the process that attorneys use to file documents with the court, we were taking away their ability to put their own language in and some felt the computer was doing their job for them. The whole culture of paper and control had to shift as we moved Colorado to a digital filing age. This was not an easy process, and one that took two years to finish.
Another challenge, beyond the cultural implications, was pretty daunting. We had to figure out a way to ensure the charging manuals (the paper that listed the charges against a defendant) had enough detail in them to be legally viable with the state statutes. You just can’t have vague language in a charging document; it had to be very detailed. Before we did this each district maintained their own charging tables. We had to work with the lawyers and get agreement on one set of language that was legally viable.
In the early days of the project we used a proprietary software but there were not any standards on how to exchange the information. The United States Department of Justice and Office of Justice programs started a reference data model called the Global Justice XML Data Model (GJXDM) which was released in early 2003. In 2005 the next version of the reference model, the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), was released. Based on the success of the models in the criminal justice system the United States Department of Health and Human Services joined the effort to standardize health care exchange of information. Having a standard format and technology made the later versions of integrations vendor agnostic and led to tremendous growth in the number of agencies participating in electronic exchange of information.
In the end, we completed the project successfully. Because of the speed and accuracy improvements, we saved these departments valuable staff time, staff who could now spend more time actually prosecuting crimes instead of performing data entry tasks. They are freed up to get to the business that actually impacts our community.