CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- Police and judges in 15 states no longer have to worry about releasing fugitives and repeat offenders because they lack information about a suspect's criminal history, FBI officials said Tuesday.
A massive, $640 million electronic database of fingerprints will give them the information they need to make critical decisions in less than two hours.
The system, which should be linked to all 50 states within a few years, will help judges determine whether a suspect should be freed on bail or kept in custody, said James DeSarno, assistant director in charge of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division.
"This is a revolutionary change in the way we do business," he said. "This quicker and more efficient identification technology will contribute to a safer America."
FBI officials demonstrated the new system for reporters Tuesday.
The new Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which began operating July 28, cuts the wait for confirmation of a suspect's true identity and criminal background from more than 20 days to just two hours.
The FBI receives about 50,000 fingerprints a day, about half of them related to criminal cases. About 10 percent, or 5,000, are for people being arrested for the first time, so the FBI has no prior data on them.
At the Clarksburg facility's new fingerprint department, fingerprint examiners work at 17-inch computer screens inspecting prints side by side. One is the unidentified print, the other the computer's pick for a likely match. Each print is checked at least twice.
The computer provides a possible match based on a score, but humans look for points of identification within a fingerprint's patterns, its telltale whirls, loops and arches.
"In every case, the human makes the final match. It's just too important," said Billy P. Martin, the system's operations manager.
The new system reduces to electronic data some 34 million fingerprint cards, the equivalent of 18 stacks as tall as New York's Empire State Building.
It also slashes the wait for civil background checks from more than three months to just 24 hours.
The system is more than a year and a half late in coming on line. The original target date was November 1997, FBI spokesman Steve Fischer said.
The original price was to be $520 million, but that went up to $640 million when Congress and an advisory board added more functions and requirements, Fischer said.