Automation, integration and performance-based management at the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.

Author:Geerken, Michael R.

Successfully operating a safe and secure local detention facility can be an immense challenge for local correctional managers. Adhering to state and federal mandates, complying with external monitoring agency standards and working within the confines of a limited budget are especially difficult for the managers of the nation's largest local correctional systems. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 50 of the nation's largest jail systems housed nearly one-third of all jail inmates in 2003, holding more than 215,000 individuals.


A large jail system is an immensely complex operation requiring a wide range of specialized knowledge and management skills. The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office (OPCSO) in Louisiana is one of the nation's 10 largest jail systems. It operates 10 jail facilities with a current population of about 6,000 and a capacity of 7,200, covering the entire range of custody and security levels. In addition to housing municipal inmates and pretrial detainees, the sheriff's office also houses 2,000 sentenced Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections inmates and about 350 federal detainees. More than 95,000 arrestees were booked into custody in 2004. There are no unincorporated areas in Orleans Parish (county) and a civil sheriff is the executive officer of a separate civil district court system. Therefore, unlike most sheriff's offices, OPCSO does not split resources between patrol and correctional activities and between civil and criminal duties, but is focused primarily on jail management, criminal court security and service of process for both state and municipal courts.

New Orleans is a city with a large population below the poverty line and a small tax base. Therefore, funding for the jail has always been on an inmate per diem basis, much lower than that of most other large jail systems. Low salaries--starting barely above minimum wage--translate to large annual turnover in personnel and difficulty in maintaining an adequate level of trained security and manpower support.

The size and complexity of the jail operation and manpower constraints has meant that since the early 1980s under Sheriff Charles Foti (April 1974 to January 2004), interim Sheriff William Hunter (January 2004 to November 2004) and current Sheriff Marlin Gusman, management has sought to automate jail operations whenever possible. Much of this automation has been with software developed largely in-house by office technical staff and some grant-supported contractors. Beginning in the 1980s and early 1990s, many of the jail's functions were automated. During the 1990s, management emphasized the development of systems for Criminal District Court and the integration of jail applications with court applications; outside criminal justice applications such as the New Orleans Police Department's MOTION system (a local criminal history and warrants system) and the Louisiana AFIS system, and with one another; and a comprehensive medical management system. During the past few years, the focus has shifted to performance measurement and the development of a performance-based management system. This management system works almost entirely on process and outcome measures drawn from OPCSO operational computer databases.

Many jails, including most large jails, use information technology in their operations. This use may consist of customized computer applications developed by contractors or in-house staff, or one or more commercial off-the-shelf applications more or less customized for the jail's particular needs. These programs support key functions such as booking, records management and inmate tracking, and support functions such as commissary, inmate accounting and inmate property. Jail functions may or may not be integrated with patrol applications such as computer-aided dispatch and arrest reporting.

If software applications for different functions are purchased as stand-alone systems from different vendors, they tend to function as "stovepipes" that are difficult to integrate without expensive modification. The same information is expressed differently in varying databases, information must be redundantly entered again and again, and an inefficient, error-prone operation results. If a comprehensive jail management system is purchased from a single vendor, the integration problem is solved--except with the systems of other agencies or departments outside the scope of the jail management system. However, the problem with this approach is that there are limits to the extent that such systems can be customized to a local operation. Management ends up being forced to modify its operations to meet the confines of the software. Sometimes these modifications serve to rationalize and improve operations, but can also rob management of the freedom to co-design its business processes and information technology to produce the most effective result.

These constraints of "canned" software led management at OPCSO to develop most of its jail operations applications in-house, using employees and hourly rate contractors under the tight supervision of employees. General use personnel and financial applications--payroll, accounting, purchasing, warehouse/inventory, time and attendance--are commercial off-the-shelf applications. (1)

OPCSO has applied four principles to its use of information technology in jail operations. This combination of principles has resulted in a distinctive approach to IT-based jail management. The principles are:

* Automate jail and court system processes wherever possible;

* Integrate these software applications with one another and with computer processes of other state and local agencies;

* Use these integrated applications for the re-engineering of business processes; and

* Extract performance measures from operational databases for performance-based management.

Automation, Integration And Reengineering

A jail's intake operation (booking and related functions) is the justice system's key initial source of information on individuals charged with crimes. It performs the essential task of identification; gathers a range of information on background, medical condition, justice system status and charges; and supplies that information in appropriate form to local prosecutors, court systems, the public, and local, state and federal law enforcement information systems. It must do all these tasks under time constraints imposed by judges, attorneys and family members who demand quick processing of arrestees meeting the conditions of release.

The information processing that occurs at intake must also provide essential information efficiently to a variety of internal jail functions such as medical services, classification, court transportation and public information. This information gathering and exchange must occur quickly in large jails because of the unpredictability of intake flow volume. Inmates are delivered around the clock on an unscheduled basis completely outside the control of the intake operation's management, and must be moved to court or appropriate housing before the next wave arrives.

A large jail intake operation can only work efficiently either with a large, carefully trained staff or ubiquitous automation, or both. OPCSO's chronic staffing shortage and turnover led management to embrace computer technology as its solution to the demands and complexity of its intake operation. In the early 1980s, the process involved data entry into separate jail and local law enforcement systems, manual fingerprinting for local, state and federal...

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