Under a revolutionary electronic system, Maryland police soon will be able to learn almost instantly whether fingerprints found at a crime scene match any of those in the state's huge but up till now largely inaccessible fingerprint file, officials said yesterday.

Officials say it promises to transform criminal investigations, speeding the identification of suspects and turning around the fundamental purpose of fingerprinting.

"Fingerprints traditionally were used to confirm the identity of known suspects," said Earl Gillespie, director of criminal justice information systems for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Now we can initiate criminal investigations by pinpointing possible suspects almost as soon as the crime is reported."

A police technician in Prince George's County, for example, will be able to lift a fingerprint at a burglary scene, return to headquarters and insert the print into a computer containing a high-resolution camera that creates an electronic image of the print.

Quickly, the image will be transmitted to a master computer in suburban Baltimore that holds fingerprints of 700,000 people who have been arrested in Maryland. The computer will search for the prints most closely resembling the one found at the crime scene and within an hour send back a set of "candidates."

Technicians will make a visual comparison, and, if they get a match, police will have a suspect and possibly will make an arrest.

It sounds futuristic, but Maryland law enforcement officials are about to launch just such a system, a $14.2 million enterprise called the Maryland Automated Fingerprint Information System.

If all goes according to schedule, it will be functioning fully by mid-summer.

Maryland's current fingerprint system, containing 7 million prints on paper file cards -- 10 prints for each person arrested in recent years -- is so massive and cumbersome that it could "take 20 years of manual searching to get a single 'hit,' " Gillespie said in an interview.

Maryland is converting its 7 million prints into 7 million sets of electronic images on optical disks so they can be quickly searched for matches. Several other states have launched similar undertakings.

Once completed, the new system should be able to do a single search "in about 20 minutes," except during periods of heavy computer use, said Paul Leuba, director of the public safety department's data services division.

"It's dramatic," he said. "We'll close more cases more quickly. There's no doubt about it."

The computerized fingerprint network, made by North American Morpho systems of Tacoma, Wash., initially will include computer terminals in Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and in the city of Baltimore, the state's six largest jurisdictions and the location of 80 percent of its arrests.

State officials said they hope to make the system more widely available within Maryland eventually and to regionalize it by hooking up with similar systems in neighboring states and the District.

At the same time, law enforcement officials soon expect to install a related electronic booking system throughout the state. It will include computerized fingerprinting machines that provide greater clarity than traditional ink-and-roller prints.

Under the system, financed by a $1.3 million federal grant, police will be able to book a suspect in a one-stop process in which a computer terminal in the station house will record the suspect's fingerprints, create charging documents for court, determine whether the suspect has a criminal record and check for outstanding arrest warrants.