Upgrading Baltimore's low-tech court system; Computerization: Criminal justice agencies must gain ability to exchange information, documents.


MUCH OF the paralysis of Baltimore's criminal-justice system is a result of its technological backwardness. Not only are various agencies trapped in a virtual Stone Age, but Police Department computers cannot communicate with parole and probation, or with the state's attorney's office.

District and circuit court computers cannot talk with one another.

This situation is particularly deplorable because it would be relatively inexpensive to link the various computer systems. The agencies involved need just $20,000 worth of routers and high-speed Internet connections.

"It's proven technology. That's the quickest and cheapest way to solve the problem," state court administrator George B. Riggin Jr. told the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council this week.

But nothing will change unless the various criminal justice agencies make the necessary interconnects a top priority. A common network is essential for the agencies to move to the next step -- establishing a search mechanism and central directory of information.

This should be a simple a matter. Unfortunately, computer experts at the agencies are so preoccupied with Y2K problems that important, albeit more mundane, matters like this tend to be overlooked. Yet if agencies are to make requests in time to get money for this important project in the next year's budget, they must focus attention on the proposal now.

Sophistication and computer readiness of criminal-justice agencies vary greatly. Giving agencies the ability to communicate with each other will do nothing to solve their internal programming deficiencies.

Unless the criminal justice agencies start aggressively introducing modern information systems, Baltimore's court crisis is likely to persist. No business can operate successfully without powerful computers. Neither can criminal-justice agencies, which depend on maintaining and exchanging accurate information and documents. Yet they have allowed themselves to be handcuffed by inefficient and outdated technology.

Increasing the criminal-justice system's computer readiness is so important that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County, both members of the coordinating committee, must use the influence of the executive branch and the General Assembly to make sure it is not delayed any longer.

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