A new computer database system called CriMNet is supposed to revolutionize crime fighting in Minnesota. Cops, politicians, big business, and the media love it.

But as the old saw goes, the devil is in the details. And if CriMNet is rich with one thing, it's details. Questions about cost of the program have taken on a new heft in light of the state's budget crisis. CriMNet staffers have at various times calculated the total program cost at $100 million to $260 million over the next six years. The truth is, no one knows what the final tab will be. Republican state representative Phil Krinkie, one of CriMNet's most vocal critics, contends that the $260 million figure is nothing but low-balling. "They're obviously trying to keep those numbers down because they don't want to scare people into thinking this is going to be a billion-dollar system," Krinkie says.

And then there are other, even more robust veins of criticism, ones based in concerns about civil liberties and fairness. If CriMNet works as designed, vast reams of information held by the 1,100-plus criminal justice agencies in the state will suddenly become retrievable with a click of the mouse. That, of course, creates opportunities for abuse. Will some elected officials (county attorneys and sheriffs, say) be tempted to tap into the databases to find dirt on a political opponent? And what will happen if the criminal background checks made possible by CriMNet--so much more comprehensive than the ones that exist today--wind up in private hands? Or on the internet?

Robert Sykora, an attorney who works as information systems director for the state's Board of Public Defense and serves as co-chair of the Minnesota Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Task Force, is worried by such scenarios. "I think CriMNet has the potential to do some good things. I don't challenge that," Sykora says. "But my concern is the negative consequences. What's coming along in the Trojan Horse?"

If CriMNet had an official mascot, it would be Donald Blom. No name has been invoked more often or more passionately by supporters to demonstrate the need for the project. In 1999 Blom, a then-51-year-old Richfield resident, was arrested in connection with one of the more notorious crimes in recent state history, the kidnapping and murder of a teenage convenience-store clerk named Katie Poirier. The abduction was recorded on store video. Poirier was an attractive and sympathetic victim. Her body was never found. So, not surprisingly, the story appeared on TV continuously. When the cops finally caught up with Blom and details about his troubling past emerged, a media frenzy ensued.

It turned out that Blom had an extensive history of convictions for sexual assaults and other crimes. But he was clever. Over the years, he used aliases and claimed different birthdays. Because of gaps in information sharing and identification- verification procedures (mostly related to poor fingerprint matching) among the various agencies involved, Blom's full record was not known. Not to his employer, a veterans' home where he had passed a BCA criminal history check; not to the judges who sentenced him in the previous cases; and, most critical, not to the investigators who were desperately hunting for suspects in the days following Poirier's disappearance.

"In the case of Blom, the counties and police departments all had information on him but they had no way of sharing," recalls Public safety commissioner Rich Stanek, a former state representative and Minneapolis police lieutenant who is one of CriMNet's most ardent boosters. "If CriMNet was in place then, right after Katie Poirier was abducted, they could have gone into all the databases, and searched for sex offenders--by m.o., by geography, by motor vehicle records. But we couldn't. That was Minnesota's dirty little secret."

Among cops and prosecutors, of course, it wasn't a secret at all. For the better part of the decade, both the state and Hennepin County had been working on so-called integration projects, which were aimed at improving the flow of information among various agencies. The Blom case, and the weaknesses it exposed, had a galvanizing effect on state lawmakers. After hearing testimony from the mothers of numerous high-profile victims (Poirier, Jacob Wetterling, Cally Jo Larson), the legislature quickly cobbled together and enacted a $41 million anti-crime package. Dubbed "Katie's Law," the new measure effectively transformed the as-yet-unnamed CriMNet program from an obscure little Hennepin County project into a much broader, much more ambitious statewide initiative.

To Stanek and the project's many other backers, it was a no-brainer. After all, as Stanek points out, the private sector long ago realized the benefit of computerized inventory tracking; shouldn't cops and prosecutors have such state-of-the-art technology on their side too? "If I go into a Target in Maple Grove, and they don't have the black polka dot socks I want, they can tell me which of their 100 stores in Minnesota have them," says Stanek. "Well, I couldn't give you that same type of information about Level 3 sex offenders, the worst of the worst."

Stanek's use of the Target analogy is fitting, if for no other reason than that the company has taken a keen interest in the development of CriMNet. Target's involvement with criminal justice integration issues in Minnesota dates back to the mid-'90s. According to Nate Garvis, the company's director of government relations, there were two major triggers: a crime wave in Minneapolis (which infamously led the New York Times to dub the city "Murderapolis") and a Star Tribune investigative series about recidivist offenders called "Catch and Release." The Strib story told of lawbreakers who had received light sentences because the full extent of their criminal records was not known to prosecutors and sentencing judges.

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