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"Still in the dark ages" was how Tony Blair last week described many of the UK's criminal justice IT systems. He said they were wholly inadequate, particularly when compared to similar systems in use in the private sector.
Speaking in London at the international Modernising Criminal Justice conference, the prime minister said the Government is planning a significant investment to drag criminal justice IT into the 21st century.
Blair said, "There will be a major investment in IT right across the system - in the courts, Crown Prosecution Service and police," to enable them to communicate effectively.
But criminal justice professionals have warned that the Government faces a difficult task, given the lack of interoperability between the existing systems used in different branches of the criminal justice network.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), said, "What they have been talking about for years is a case management system that links criminal justice agencies. What has hindered that is the fact that the [existing IT] systems don't talk to each other and never come up for renewal on the same date."
Fletcher warned that the Government must be prepared to make some brave policy decisions if it is to deliver integrated IT across the whole criminal justice system. "What they will have to do is take one bold step and say that all agencies will switch to an integrated system on one date," he said.
However, criminal justice insiders have warned that it could take as long as a decade to implement an integrated IT system for the whole justice network, which has suffered a series of embarrassing IT failures over the past few years.
For example, the new case-management system for probation officers, Crams, is due to be replaced after complaints from staff and magistrates courts. They are still waiting for a case-management application that was supposed to be supplied by a £319m public finance initiative deal with ICL.
Meanwhile, MPs have criticised the police for holding inaccurate records on the Police National Computer.
Only last week a damning report from the Audit Commission said that inadequate IT is contributing to delays and inefficiencies right across the criminal justice system. Auditors highlighted the lack of a modern, shared, IT system and pointed to the lack of interoperability across the seven main criminal justice agencies: the police; the Probation Service; the Crown Prosecution; criminal defence; magistrates courts; crown courts; and the Prison Service.
Blair added to this depressing picture during his speech to criminal justice professionals from around the world. "Many of our criminal justice IT systems are still in the dark ages in comparison to other jurisdictions and leading-edge private sector organisations," he said.
Precise details of the planned reform of criminal justice IT will be contained in a white paper that is due to be published shortly. It is expected to seek to resolve a number of issues, both technical and cultural.
The problems with the criminal justice system are not just technological; the Audit Commission report also expressed concern about the way that IT operates. It found, for example, that even where integrated IT systems exist, some staff continue to fax rather than e-mail case papers, suggesting that cultural and skills barriers to the use of IT still exist.
"These barriers need to be overcome with a comprehensive training programme that will allow the full potential of IT to be realised," the Audit Commission report said.
However, public sector suppliers are adamant that it is possible to provide the criminal justice network with a 21st century IT system, and have identified the use of electronic case files as crucial to this.
James McVicar, account director for home affairs and criminal justice at IT services specialist Schlumberger Sema, said, "There is going to be a commitment [to criminal justice IT]. The prime minister made a big commitment to health, and criminal justice is a close second."
McVicar acknowledged some of the difficulties involved with the all-important case files. "It is a challenge to ensure that they are transferred electronically," he said. "And it is also a challenge to ensure that the right people access the right parts at the correct time."
With this in mind, future electronic case file systems will benefit from technologies such as public key infrastructure and biometrics. "That will make the audit trail secure and enable the secure flow of information," said McVicar. He also believes that electronic case files will improve the overall efficiency of the criminal justice system, which is currently hindered by its dependence on paper-based processes.
There are some parallels to be drawn here between the Government's ambitious plan to overhaul IT in the NHS and its criminal justice ambitions. For example, electronic patient records, the medical equivalent of electronic case files, also play a major part in the health service's future IT strategy.
McVicar, who was formerly SchlumbergerSema's account director for NHS Scotland, believes the sheer scale of building systems in the health service, which is one of the world's largest organisations, puts the Government's plans for criminal justice into perspective.
"Logistically, health is the bigger challenge because there are so many organisations, with the hundreds of NHS trusts. If you look at criminal justice, there are, for example, only 43 police authorities."
If the Government meets its ambitious targets all criminal justice agencies will be able to exchange all case file information electronically by 2005. It will, however, have to be careful to involve users throughout its long-term IT strategy. "They will have to give themselves a long planning period, ensuring that users are involved and that there is adequate provision for people with disabilities," said Fletcher.
McVicar believes the Government will succeed but warned that it should not lose any time getting to grips with the task. "We have to start the journey now," he said.