Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dismissals, case outcomes often don't make it into state criminal history database

The State Auditor's Office has released a report on criminal justice information systems at the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Department of Criminal Justice, raising questions about the accuracy of criminal history data at both agencies. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a brief story on the subject, but let's dig into the audit (pdf) in more detail.

The biggest issue at DPS is a failure to record more than 1/4 of "dispositions," i.e., outcomes, related to arrests logged into their system, primarily because "DPS does not have authorization ... to penalize" prosecutors and courts who don't submit such data. "As of January 2011, prosecutor offices and courts had submitted disposition records to the Computerized Criminal History System for 73.68 percent of arrests made in 2009.

Such omissions can lead to critical errors, as demonstrated by the case of Walter Rothgery, whose false arrest for being a felon in possession of a firearm (he had never been convicted) happened because the outcome of a prior case had never been entered into the system. Lots of people are arrested for things they're never convicted of, and failure to enter disposition data into the system means many of them will be blamed in the future for charges that were dismissed.

According to the audit, of records submitted to DPS between Sept. 1, 2009 and Nov. 30, 2010, an astonishingly low "47,051 (63.61 percent) of 73,967 records for criminal charges that prosecutors dismissed were submitted within 30 days as required." You'd think dismissals - clearing people's names from un-adjudicated charges - would be among the most important information to ensure gets into the system, but more than 1/3 of dismissals aren't reported in a timely fashion.

Poor information gathering on the front end leads to gaps in information for decisionmakers later in the process. Remarkably, examining a one month sampling of data, auditors identified 1,634 offenders who began serving sentences in prison, jail or on probation in November 2010 for whom the Computerized Criminal History System contained no sentencing information from courts or prosecutors. For offenders sent to jail or prison that month, a whopping 19.29 percent of records at TDCJ failed to include an "arrest incident number," meaning the state can't tell for sure the arrest event associated with their incarceration.

Prosecutors and courts, though, aren't the only ones failing to forward sufficient data upstream. The system "lacks arrest records to match with at least 65,424 prosecutor office or court records collected between September 1, 2009 and November 30, 2010. DPS could not match those records because law enforcement agencies had not submitted arrest records appropriately or because the prosecutor offices and courts submitted erroneous data that prevented DPS from matching records."

Counties recording complete data in less than 90% of cases are supposed to submit plans to DPS for improving their record keeping, but that relatively recent requirement doesn't seem to have resulted in substantial improvements in reporting local case data to the state.

Making matters worse, a majority of disposition data submitted by law enforcement is inaccurate. Auditors sampled records from four law enforcement agencies - Garland PD, Houston PD, and the Harris and Kerr County Sheriffs - and found that 59.55% of arrest records "incorrectly showed that the individual was held in the custody of the law enforcement agency when the individual had actually been released." So basically, once you're arrested, there's a good chance state databases will show that you're still caught up in the system even if charges have been dismissed, you've been released from custody, etc..

Other parts of the audit examined information systems at TDCJ and local probation departments that feed them data on community supervision. "Auditors reviewed the error logs for the five largest local probation offices. TDCJ identified errors in 415,453 (22.60 percent) of the 1,838,576 probation records those local probation offices submitted from September 1, 2009 through February 28,2011," meaning more than one in five probationer records contained errors. However TDCJ "was not able to determine how many of those errors remained and how many had been corrected."

I was interested to learn that "TDCJ submits the state identification number of probationers to DPS each day to determine whether probationers were arrested," but nearly half of Texas probation departments do not monitor that data. The notifications to probation departments of probationer arrests are called "flash notices," but "as of May 2011, users representing 120 (47.24 percent) of the 254 counties had not viewed arrest records associated with flash notices in at least 90 days. That included 56 (41.48 percent) of 135 total users in the 254 counties which had not accessed their accounts within a six month period. Those counties are listed in an appendix.

Bexar County, the audit noted, "had not viewed arrest records associated with flash notices in more than a year" and reviewed arrest data in a local system that includes only arrests in that county. "As of May 5, 2011, Bexar County's CSCD did not have a flash coordinator because it was not aware of the flash notice process," which it should be mentioned provides more fuel for critics of that often-dysfunctional department.

Concerns were also raised in the audit that both DPS and TDCJ had staffers authorized to access or alter data who didn't need it for their job description. At DPS, "Twenty-six staff had administrative access that enabled them to modify criminal records, security configurations, and application functionality of the Computerized Criminal History System," but "only one of those individuals required the ability to modify security configurations to perform the individual's job duties." Giving users inappropriate access, said the auditor, "increases the risk of fraud and unauthorized modification of criminal records."

Similarly, TDCJ does not adequately restrict access to its Corrections Tracking System, meaning "a risk still exists that unauthorized changes would not be detected or prevented. In addition, TDCJ does not adequately back up its system, so if "an unprotected database file was deleted, TDCJ could risk losing criminal data and disrupting the availability of the Corrections Tracking System."

Remarkably - and this should be worrisome to local probation directors - one of the auditors' recommendations was that "TDCJ should consider reducing the funds it provides" to probation departments that don't provide all the data on probationers they're supposed to. Somehow I doubt that will happen, but TDCJ said they agreed with the recommendation and at least in theory could do so. DPS, by contrast, has little if any leverage to force courts and prosecutors to improve their data collection.

This is a story reporters in regional markets could localize for the various agencies in their area. See the full report (pdf) and appedices with county level data for more information.


Prison Doc said...

This cannot be a surprise to anyone who is even slightly familiar with "the system". Certainly it confirms the experiences that I've seen.

gravyrug said...

An example of the real-world issues this affects; a close friend of mine is on SS Disability, and has twice had her payments interrupted because the system thought she was in prison. She's been out for four years, and finished her parole over a year ago. Fortunately, she kept all her paperwork, so she could prove she was out, but it was a serious hassle both times, and interfered with medical treatment.
We're not completely sure if that was a SS office or a TDCJ error, but either way it's a bad thing.

A Texas PO said...

IMHO, probation has absolutely no business reporting this data since we don't arrest anyone. My frustration over the years has been trying to get disposition info from numerous counties when completing PSIs or trying to determine the proper sanctions based on new arrests. But what I've noticed is that too many PDs and SOs don't report arrests properly. Representatives from DPS have always told jailers and officers that they need to check their electronic fingerprint submissions for errors before releasing the offender (which only takes a few minutes, we're not talking days or hours). When an error occurs, if it is not corrected and the agency fingerprints 50 more offenders, not a single set of those fingerprints or information gets submitted to DPS. The other problem is when the PD and the jail are expecting the other agency to submit the arrest data. When this happens, nothign gets reported to DPS and causes all kinds of problems for everyone involved, especially the accused. Years ago, DPS set up committees in most jurisdictions to resolve these issues and devise plans to reduce future errors, yet most of these committees haven't met in years. No wonder the problem gets worse every year.

Texas Maverick said...

OMG, why has it taken so long for this to be brought to the public attention. Why didn't it come out at the committee hearings when the various agencies involved testified before the Legis.? No wonder as A Texas PO said, things are screwed up. The worse thing is it goes to the federal databases now. So, all the stats that are produced that feed the justice system are affected. As we say in data processing, "Garbage in, Garbage out."

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it make logistical sense to place this responsibility where this reporting information is first hand and official record? Every clerk's office in conjunction with OCA ask for more and more fees every year. How about requiring them do something for the fees they are receiving. Clerk's offices are the official records keepers why in the hell aren't they inputting all of this information?
Probation is the last in line to receive the information that is supposed to be reported, so naturally they are the easiest to blame. AND it makes sense for one entity to be responsible and accountable for all the input. Why have a dozen different agencies reporting bits and pieces of the information? You really don't understand why it isn't working effectively, for reals?
Or maybe, OMG, the Prosecutor's Office should enter all the information.

Don said...

Texas Maverick: It's not just now coming to anybody's attention. Grits has talked about it before. The lege mandated clerk's offices do something about it their part of it, but nobody enforced that, apparently. Besides, especially in small counties, it's probably worse, percentage wise. County clerks in small rural counties don't have any oversight, except for the county judge, and I have seen cases where neither one of them were even familiar with the requirements. Together with the fact that, especially in West Texas, they have a long-standing tradition of doing whatever the hell they wanted to. More than one county judge has boasted that they told Austin to take care of Austin and they would take care of, say, Littlefield. People who have charges dropped assume that that is the end of that, but it may not be. Like deferred adjudication. I have asked a lot of folks what they were told about Deferred and they say, "if I complete my probation, it's just not there anymore. Oh Boy!

Anonymous said...

It generates income to many cities so they are not about to correct this. Outstanding warrants that aren't removed when cleared causes many arrests. Sure, you can get it cleared up, till next time but, it costs you $$$ and no city in this State is about to refund your monies!!!

Phillip Baker said...

This is exactly why it is such an egregious affront for the American-Statesman to post those booking photos. By their own admission, about half of all people booked into Central Booking have their charges dismissed and are released. That picture in the paper causes innocent people lost jobs, family troubles, and blocks loans, jobs,etc for years to come. Our paper needs to stop this now. Of course, if APD and TSCO would actively stamp out the "arrest 'em all and let the courts sort it out" mentality of officers, that'd help ,too. If half of arrests are dismissed, then the state's highest paid police seem to be really lazy. Maybe it's time for Acevedo to tighten up his force and require more exercise of judgment by his officers.

rodmsith said...

looks to me like a great big opening for some major class action lawsuits. For anyone every arrested or even inconvienced by the govt's CRIMINAL STUPIDITY!

ESPECIALY in cases like the lady with who kept losing her SS because the govt was screwed up enough to keep saying she's in priosn. That should be a lawyer's dream case! Since it would be open and shut.

Anonymous said...

Better yet, don't even enter any information at all unless sentenced to prison. Isn't the idea behind probation to "deter" from prison or keep from going further into the system?

Anonymous said...

Grits, we also see this problem FROM DPS, most notably in your favorite program, the DRP. Street-level officers frequently cite/arrest for DWLI based on a driver's license return that's incomplete because DPS has not processed lifting a suspension (even though they cashed the check three weeks ago). Making matters worse, DPS BACKDATES these lifts. So a person is cited/arrested for an offense that they were technically committing at the time of the stop, but that they were no longer actually committing by the time the case gets to trial -- IF they were smart enough to ask for a trial instead of paying the citation. (The only times you can catch DPS doing this backdating is if the officer prints a DL record at the time of the stop and submits it with the citation. The certified copy requested for trial will frequently have additions that strangely predate the stop.) Maybe DPS shouldn't be trusted with creating or compiling such important information.

Anonymous said...

I hired a guy one time who had been in prison in Arizona for manslaughter. He talked about it with a co-worker and freely admitted it to me after I asked. I ran several CCHs, FBI, etc. NO RECORD. He ran from the cops in a vehicle and a passenger was killed. This was about 10 years ago. I do not trust the system anymore.

Unhappy CSO said...

I assure you probation tries to report the cases we get on probation since we get paid off those SID's and TRN numbers. Please remember that when someone is arrested and fingerprinted the law enforcement sends in CR43 forms and then when the offender receives his disposition it is to be reported by the District/County Clerks!!! I firmly believe if the state would cut the funds to the clerks, County-District Attorneys, Judges you will see the reporting at 99 percent. They always want to cut probation and why?? It is NOT our fault!!