WASHINGTON -- For six weeks last year, John Garris was a substitute teacher in the prestigious public school system of Fairfax County, Va., just outside Washington. By several accounts, he was effective and well-liked by students.
He also was a convicted killer and fugitive.
As part of the school system's normal hiring process, Garris was fingerprinted. But because of the nation's antiquated system of processing fingerprint identifications, his record was not discovered for six weeks.
His case is far from isolated. Thousands of criminals each year escape arrest because of the decades-old, time-consuming process of criminal background checks.
Thousands of fingerprint cards are lost each year. Thousands more are misfiled. And matching prints that are not in the FBI's computer can take weeks as clerks wade through file cabinets that take up 300,000 square feet on the upper floors of the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
"We've got to leverage technology to do a better job in the war on crime," said G. Norman Christensen, an FBI assistant director who oversees the bureau's fingerprint division.
In addition to law enforcement agencies, businesses increasingly are using fingerprints for background checks on employees. Many states have laws that allow applicants for jobs like teaching or banking to be printed.
The FBI, an agency often long on modern technology, still processes many fingerprints in ways not much different from when it started collecting them nearly 70 years ago.
"They are so far behind that they are at the beginning," said Chicago police Lt. John Burzinski, who oversees automation projects.
An FBI official put it more delicately: "It's a national resource on the decline, and we need to fix it."
Most prints are sent by mail to the FBI, where the cards are sorted into large bins by region. Prints of criminal suspects are given higher priority and checked by computer. Others are processed manually and can take weeks to be filed.
The FBI receives more than 35,000 fingerprint cards a day -- 20,000 of them criminal prints -- and the average time to process a print card is seven days.
Some criminals lie about their identity when arrested and are released before their prints are matched. Some get away because prints are unusable. The FBI says it identifies 29,000 fugitives annually from matching fingerprints.
Mr. Christensen said the FBI has ambitious plans to convert all prints to electronically transmitted images by the end of the century.
Making the system workable will be daunting. The FBI stores 200 million fingerprint cards -- enough to make 17 stacks as tall as the Empire State Building -- and it will take years to convert the files to electronic use.
Some members of Congress say the bureau has taken too long to upgrade its system in an age of instant communication.
"It's been a disaster over there, and it won't get straightened out until 1995," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., a member of House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the FBI. "I would like to know what's taken so long."
Mr. Christensen said technology is only now evolving to the point that it can handle such a massive project. The bureau recently awarded a $46 million contract to Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Fla., to develop its national computer network.