RALEIGH - North Carolina's crime-fighting efforts got a boost this month when Congress approved $10 million for a statewide computer network connecting courts, law enforcement and correction agencies.
The network will speed sharing of such data as criminal records, fingerprints and arrest warrants, closing gaps through which offenders can slip, officials said.
The Criminal Justice Information Network will play a vital role in tracking the relatively small but highly mobile number of repeat offenders responsible for most crimes, said Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety Richard Moore.
"We envision having a much safer and a much more efficient criminal justice system," Moore said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't want that law enforcement officer to have every bit of information they can before they pull over a motorist or walk into a house."
The high-tech link will also help law enforcement agencies catch up with popular misconceptions of present electronic crime-fighting abilities, Moore said.
"The public out there all too often thinks when they see a Highway Patrol trooper or a deputy sheriff that this person is sitting in the Batmobile; that they have every computer, every gizmo. The reality is so far from the perception that it's sad. That's what we're trying to change."
The federal money was approved Nov. 18 after a conference committee worked out differences in the Senate and House versions of the Commerce-Justice-State-Judiciary Appropriations Act of 1998.
State officials credited Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., with persuading colleagues to finance the network as a national model for other states to follow. Faircloth cited U.S. Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Charles Taylor, R-N.C., for their support.
Faircloth pitched North Carolina's lead in developing a system linking separate agencies, including the Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Corrections, Division of Motor Vehicles, State Bureau of Investigation, Division of Criminal Information, Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. The network also ties into the FBI's National Crime Information Network.
The idea for the network sprang from the General Assembly's Special Crime Session in 1994. Officials hope it will help overcome several deficiencies in the hodgepodge of records that criminal justice agencies maintain separately.
"The biggest problem now is there's no system in place where agencies can talk to each other with their data," said Jeanne Bonds, deputy director for policy and communication for the state court system. "The information is very fragmented and spread across many agencies."
Elements of the network are already under development, Moore said. The network's governing board focusing on three projects: an automated fingerprint identification system; an automated system that will enable magistrates to issue arrest warrants via computer, making them instantly available to officers, prosecutors and clerks; and a mobile data network to make warrant and other information accessible within seconds to law officers in their patrol cars.
Of the $10 million in federal money, the magistrates system will receive $4 million; a network security system $3.5 million; and the mobile data network $2.5 million.
Moore attributed the state's success in securing the federal money to the fact that the General Assembly has already spent $2 million on the magistrate system, which the Administrative Office of the Courts is planning, and at least as much on the fingerprint system, which the SBI is overseeing.
The fingerprint and warrant portions of the network will likely be complete within two years, thanks to the federal lump sum, Moore said. The mobile data network will need another $5 million to $10 million to reach completion.
The state Highway Patrol, using $5 million in state and federal money, has been developing the mobile data network since last year. It already covers about half the state's population, concentrating on areas along Interstates 85 and 95. A second phase is now under way to extend the network along Interstate 40.