Criminal justice information sharing raises questionsby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
In the criminal justice system, information can change lives. The right information can help police arrest criminals. But inaccurate information can let offenders off the hook, or label persons as criminals for crimes they never committed.
Minnesota officials have been working on a project called CriMNet for nearly a decade. The project would link all criminal justice information across the state. State officials say the system will help police and judges do a better job. Privacy advocates say the state needs to do more to ensure that data is accurate and secure.
St. Paul, Minn. — The state has spent nearly $200 million on its criminal justice information management projects over the past decade. Information sharing among state agencies has improved, but officials struggle to make the information available statewide. To get a sense of why the CriMNet project has moved so slowly, one need only attend a meeting of its task force.
RUN BY COMMITTEE
Recently, about two dozen members debated proposed changes to data privacy laws. One committee spent a year developing the recommendations. But some members wanted to wait a year before bringing the issue to the Minnesota Legislature. Others, like public defender Bob Sykora, argued for action.
"Having been involved in this issue, I have never seen a room full of people with more ways to disagree than the last year on this delivery team. It was real creativity. I just don't think we'll ever get everybody lined up behind it," Sykora told the other CriMNet task force members.
The debate was about criminal histories. Who should have access to what information for background checks? What happens if there are mistakes in a person's criminal history file? Is it possible to correct that data or erase it from the system?
Bob Sykora says those are all thorny issues where the law just has not caught up with technology.
"The state of the law is pretty much designed around the file cabinet," says Sykora. "But the state of technology has advanced significantly, and policy-makers haven't been fully cognizant of the changes in the practical environment."
Mistakes on a criminal history cause what state officials call collateral consequences. People might be turned down for housing, loans or jobs.
DATA MISTAKES HAVE REAL-LIFE CONSEQUENCES
A 41-year-old Minneapolis woman suffered a "collateral consequence"; she was fired because of a mistake that showed up on her background check. We agreed not to use her name because she feared publicity would hamper her effort to find a new job.
The woman says she worked as a nurse's aide for more than a dozen years. Earlier this year she took a job at a St. Paul nursing home. Her new employer conducted a standard background check, and a few days later she was told she could not work at the nursing home because of an assault conviction on her record.
The woman was convicted of a misdemeanor drug crime in 1996, a conviction that isn't enough to disqualify her from a nursing job. But in the state database her criminal history included the word "assault," so she was fired.
"My house was foreclosed on since this happened," she said. "I got so depressed I didn't really care about what happened, so I stayed at home in bed all the time. I bought my house 10 years ago, so to lose it like this ... I was like, this is not fair."
The woman is working a part-time job that pays much less than her nursing job. With help from the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, she was able to correct her record. She says a state employee told her it was likely a typographical error.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension corrected her record, but she is still waiting to be told she can work again as a nurse's aide. However, an online background check still shows the assault on her record. There is no way for her to correct the information that dozens of Internet companies may share.
Tom Johnson, president of the Council on Crime and Justice, says that is a recurring problem.
Many background checks for housing or jobs are done from Internet databases operated by a "data harvester," that collects information from state databases and then charges a fee for access to that information. But Johnson says there is no way to correct the records once they are out on the Internet.
"We just haven't faced up to the fact that technology has raced ahead of policy in this state, and we need to blow a whistle, time out, let's decide what the policy should be," says Johnson.
HOW HIGH IS THE ERROR RATE?
It's unclear how often information is incorrect. At the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, about 2,000 cases, or 15 percent, of files entered in the criminal history database go into suspension each month. That means the computer program can't link them to an existing criminal record, because they have an error. It could be a bad fingerprint, missing information, or something as simple as a clerical error.
The agency refers to them as high priority suspense cases. If those files are not corrected, the work of police and the courts could be hampered.
The BCA has made a concerted effort to reduce the error rate, which was as high as 50 percent in the late 1990s. A backlog of nearly half a million cases has been reduced to about 78,000. But the agency has struggled to reduce the error rate below 15 percent.
Dale Good, director of the CriMNet project, says there is no good systemwide analysis of errors in criminal justice information. He says complete and accurate data is a big concern, because incomplete records might mean a criminal may get a more lenient sentence if the judge doesn't know about all of the offender's prior crimes.
Some Minnesota judges also have concerns about the accuracy of information in the judicial system. They say public trust in the judicial system depends on accurate information.
Paul Nelson, chief judge of the 8th Judicial District, is among those with concerns.
"Clearly, if we've got this system that we've spent an awful lot of money and an awful lot of time on, it should be able to provide us the appropriate data for our own management, for the Legislature and for the public," says Nelson.
The Minnesota court system is currently auditing part of its record-keeping system to check the accuracy of court files. Court officials declined to say what they've found so far.
CriMNet executive director Dale Good says changes are also needed in how the law regulates background checks. He says state law is unclear and confusing. For example, the Department of Human Services does about 300,000 background checks every year, but doesn't have access to some court records which might disqualify a job candidate.
The CriMNet office is recommending the governor set up a specific audit and training division to ensure criminal records are accurate.
Dale Good says his goal is to design a system where everyone -- from police to prosecutors to the courts -- is entering information in a consistent manner.
He says an example is statute table designed and maintained by the state.
"To the extent we can drive everybody towards using this single table to make sure we have accurate data," says Good, "not only will it speed up the process, it will improve the accuracy when that data comes back to the criminal history. A lot of times it's wrong."
WHY IS CRIMNET USAGE SO LOW?
The idea of CriMNet sounds simple; to link all of Minnesota's 87 counties so police, prosecutors, the courts, and corrections can all access each others information. Many state databases are now linked, and that speeds up the search for information.
But the system sees limited use. A CriMNet search tool that allows information to be gleaned from several databases simultaneously is used by only 30 sheriffs departments and 78 police departments. Only one police department has signed up to use the Comprehensive Incident Based Reporting System, which allows law enforcement to share information about arrests and investigations.
"We're constantly communicating with law enforcement that this application, this database exists, and yet only one agency is submitting voluntarily," says Dale Good. "So we have this disconnect. If this is so important to you all, why are more agencies not submitting data?"
The answer is not clear. Many local agencies say they can't afford the technology and the staff time the new systems require.
Some in law enforcement worry about being overwhelmed by information. Sometimes finding the right information is the real challenge.
Moorhead police investigator Mike Detloff likes the CriMNet search option. Instead of remembering eight or nine passwords and searching individual databases, he can log on to CriMNet and do a single search.
But he says sometimes he gets too much information, and the reports are not easy to quickly read. So he's started using a private Internet search engine for a quick background check on a suspect.
"I just found out about it by talking to another investigator," says Detloff. "He says, 'Don't look at the criminal history because that's confusing. You don't know if it's convicted, guilty, or dismissed. Go to this Mncriminals.com, it has all the public information.' It's laid out nice, it has links to the actual statute they're charged with."
That may be more efficient, but there are potential problems with a private Internet database.
Remember the 41-year old Minneapolis woman who lost her job because of a mistake on her criminal history? Her record has been corrected in the state database, but in Mncriminals.com, the erroneous assault is still part of her record.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION, NOT ALWAYS RIGHT
Getting accurate, timely information is also an issue for probation officers. St. Louis County probation officer John Serre says if he gets inaccurate information for a presentence investigation, a judge might impose the wrong sentence.
Serre says a statewide information system is critical to having complete information about criminal backgrounds.
But he says his experience with CriMNet has been frustrating. He says a background search that used to return five concise pages of information now overwhelms him with data he doesn't need.
"When I ran it on the BCA I got 20-odd pages. I went to CriMNet and got another 25 pages. In the Statewide Supervision System, I got another 25 pages. It's there, but it's so time-consuming," said Serre.
Serre has asked the CriMNnet office to create a better way of searching various databases for criminal histories.
That is just one of many issues CriMNet officials are dealing with as they try to integrate various databases.
CriMNet director Dale Good says they are trying to determine how to prioritize those problems and correct them.
As sharing of criminal justice information expands, some Minnesota lawmakers want take a comprehensive look at state law that regulates how the information is used.
State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, says finding solutions to a complex problem won't be easy.
"Government is collecting more and more information on individuals, and in many instances there is very little oversight in how they use it," says Holberg. "Part of it goes back to the public is just unaware. I think if they were more aware there would be more of an outcry to policy-makers, and the changes would occur more rapidly."
State officials say they've built systems to collect and manage much more criminal justice information.
The challenge now is to decide how that information should be used, and how to get it to the right people at the right time.
- All Things Considered, 12/28/2006, 4:50 p.m.
Dan Gunderson is based in Moorhead, Minn.