Dragnet

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

 

Sykora's biggest concern, however, can be boiled down to a single word: accuracy. Minnesota court records, Sykora say, are often incomplete or inaccurate. As it is now, such errors or omissions can carry major consequences. Take this common scenario. A defendant is charged with a felony but pleads down to a gross misdemeanor. Often, he says, that gross misdemeanor conviction will appear in some court record as a felony. "The sentencing guidelines will assign certain points based on your criminal history. So if you get in trouble again, and you walk in with a felony point, and nobody catches that error, you'll end up going to jail longer than you should," Sykora says. "Our lawyers find errors like this all the time."

Mark Anderson, who works in the public defenders' appellate division, agrees. In one of his recent cases, Anderson says, he represented a client who had previously faced a charge of fleeing police. Ultimately, the man pleaded guilty to a much lesser offense, making an improper turn. But it was the fleeing-police charge that wound up on his criminal history: The clerical error effectively added 10 months to his sentence. As Anderson sees it, the problem boils down to issues of overwork and inadequate quality control among low-paid data entry clerks.

But with CriMNet, Sykora and Anderson contend, the consequences of bad information will be amplified. Information that was hard to get--sometimes existing only in paper form in the back of a filing cabinet--will now be universally available. Or, as Sykora puts it, data once distributed "by the teaspoon is now going out by a firehose."

With an eye toward assessing the problem, the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Policy Group--CriMNet's governing board--has requested that the legislative auditor undertake a study in which cases are tracked as they wend their way through the court system. Such an audit, says Sykora, would help define the error rate. In principle, that seems like a good first step. But it is only a recommendation. With tight budgets, there is scant guarantee the auditor will mount such a study.

The Policy Group, meanwhile, has also been looking at creating a mechanism whereby people could challenge the accuracy of information on CriMNet. That's an important goal, Sykora and Anderson both agree. But they're skeptical it will work. "By and large, with stuff like this, there is no right to counsel," Anderson points out. Besides, Sykora says, many criminal defendants don't even have an accurate understanding of their own criminal records. "We can establish all kinds of ways for these people to challenge the information. But there are enormous numbers of public defense clients who are so low-functioning-- people with fetal alcohol syndrome and other cognitive difficulties--that they won't have any idea whether the record they're looking at is theirs or not."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, says Sykora, there are high-level sociopaths who know how to work the system. "Designing a system to address the Donald Bloms of the world loses sight of the fact that 99.9 percent of the people in the system aren't anywhere near Donald Blom's level of craftiness," Sykora says. "For every Donald Blom, there are thousands of people who can scarcely manipulate their way through the line at the grocery store."

 

Still, it was the specter of Donald Blom that got the CriMNet train out of the station. The notorious case of 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta helped keep it rolling down the tracks. Two months before the World Trade Center attack, Atta was pulled over by police in Palm Beach County, Florida, on a routine traffic stop. At the time, there was a bench warrant for Atta in the neighboring Broward County for failure to appear in court. But because the cops in Palm Beach County didn't know about the Broward County warrant, Atta was released. And we all know what happened next.

Last summer, two of CriMNet's most prominent boosters--Charlie Weaver, then public safety commissioner and now Pawlenty's chief of staff, and Target CEO Robert Ulrich--invoked the Atta incident as part of a CriMNet public relations blitz. In a joint op-ed piece entitled "Mr. Magoo vs. the terrorists" (which initially ran in the Washington Times, then in the Star Tribune), Weaver and Ulrich concluded with a call to arms: "We won't approach the type of safety this nation deserves until tracking criminals and terrorists is as effective as tracking inventory at a Target Store. We need to know exactly where they are."

Interestingly, the piece didn't address the issue of whether or not it would have mattered if the cops had known about the outstanding warrant for Atta. Atta was facing the relatively minor charge of failure to appear on a motor vehicle citation. It seems unlikely he would have been locked up for two months. But that wasn't the real point. What mattered was linking gaps in the criminal justice information system with terrorism, and marketing CriMNet as a possible solution.

The Weaver-Ulrich op-ed pieces were not the first effort to wed CriMNet to homeland security. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, CriMNet deputy director Kooy authored a seven-page white paper presenting CriMNet as a template to the federal government. Among other things, the paper examined a scenario in which commercial databases with information on airplane ticket purchases and car rentals could be matched against data on CriMNet to root out terrorists. That would work best, Kooy posited, if other states were also to adopt the CriMNet model. "Within this architecture, reporting, collection, analysis, and communication can all be securely integrated, in real time, nationwide."

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