System aimed at better tracking criminal offenders
Posted August 24, 2009 6:10 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2009 7:10 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — On any given week, several thousand people file through the Wake County Courthouse for any number of criminal matters – from traffic violations to murder.
"We file over 200,000 criminal cases each year," Wake County Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman said. "We have hundreds of felonies that go through the system on a weekly basis."
As the court system's chief record keeper, one of Freeman's primary responsibilities is to maintain the files associated with every criminal case so that magistrates, prosecutors and judges have the information they need to make efficient and informed decisions when it comes to public safety.
"It's a challenge – there's no question, when you have that type of volume and those numbers of charges," Freeman said. Also a challenge, she says, is understanding that information and sharing it across the criminal justice system.
North Carolina uses a 25-year-old computer information system that court officials say can be inefficient, hard to understand and inaccessible to certain parts of the criminal justice system.
Freeman says Wake court administrators and officials must rely on printed reports – sometimes dozens of pages long – which can be difficult to decipher and on which crucial information can be overlooked.
"The system is only as good as the people who work in it and as good as the tools that they have at their disposal," Freeman says. "So, there's no question that with that volume of cases that there are times that things could have gone better or could have been done differently that might have been better for the public."
Case in point: the March 5, 2008, slaying of Eve Carson, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior whom police say was kidnapped, robbed and shot to death in a neighborhood near campus.
The suspects in her slaying – Demario James Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. – were repeat offenders whom the court system overlooked multiple times while they were on probation.
An investigation found that part of the reason they were overlooked was because there was no central information system for law enforcement officials to access and no efficient way of knowing when offenders on probation were charged with additional crimes.
Officials have said that there's no guarantee the slayings could have been prevented – even if the problems did not exist – but that if information about the suspects were more readily available, it could have prompted officials to look more closely at them.
"I think, unfortunately, that after her (Carson's) death, there was a lot of recognition that something needed to be done to make sure that adequate information was being provided to judges, to prosecutors to make good decisions," Freeman said.
Part of the solution, local and state officials say, is the Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Automated Data Services – or CJLEADS – a Web-based information system under development that draws data from across the criminal justice system.
It presents the information in an easy-to-understand, interactive and customizable interface that allows users to get to the information they need to make more informed decisions.
It also allows users to set up watch lists and receive notifications when specified offenders' records change. For example, probation-parole officers would be alerted if offenders they are tracking are charged with crimes anywhere in the state.
Wake County will serve next year as the first test site for the system, which early estimates have at $10 million for the first year and $27 million over three years.
State legislation mandates that the program be in a beta testing phase by June. If all goes according to plan, it could be implemented in other counties by 2011 and statewide in 2012.
"It's going to give us a much better quality of information so that we can make better decisions about what to do with cases," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Although prosecutors already have access to the information, Willoughby says it is often a time-consuming process to retrieve it.
"(CJLEADS) will make it quick, informative, easier to gather and easier to understand," he said.
Since Carson's slaying, and the shooting death of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato two months earlier (Lovette also faces a murder charge in the case), the state has already started testing another Web-based system, North Carolina Arrest Warrant Repository.
The $13 million NCAWARE allows authorities to check for outstanding arrest warrants across the state and issue new warrants. It has already met success in counties where it has been implemented, including Wake. The program could go statewide as early as next year.