There is more bad news for the bad guys: The FBI has become a lot faster in identifying you.
The reason for this is rooted in modern technology and can be found in Clarksburg, W.Va., where the bureau's criminal justice information services division is headquartered. At a ceremony there this month, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh inaugurated the full operation of something called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The system does electronically what had been the tedious process of matching fingerprints submitted by law enforcement agencies with the 34 million fingerprint cards the FBI has accumulated over the years.
The practical effect, say FBI officials, has been to cut the time it takes to match fingerprints and do criminal background checks from about 20 days to two hours. And that, they say, will mean law enforcement agencies will know almost instantly whether suspects should be released on bail or held because of other pending cases against them.
"Timely identification information is particularly crucial in instances where a person has been charged with a crime and is awaiting a bail hearing," Freeh said. "In the past, many fugitives from justice and hardened criminals were released and fled before their set court dates because the criminal history information was not available prior to the hearing."
The new system also will speed the process of doing fingerprint matches and background checks in noncriminal cases. These typically involve applications for jobs such as teacher or security guard. According to Steve Fischer, an FBI spokesman at the Clarksburg facility, the waiting time for such "civil submissions" two years ago was as much as 100 days, but now the FBI can make these civil checks in 24 hours.
Such speed does not come cheaply. The new system, which was implemented gradually, cost $640 million. But even with that expenditure, fingerprint matching should remain a lucrative business for the FBI.
Fischer said the bureau gets an average of 50,000 fingerprint submissions each business day, split almost evenly between criminal cases and civil background checks. It handles the criminal submissions as part of its law enforcement mission, but for the others it charges a $24 fee. With about 25,000 civil checks each business day, that easily means more than $100 million a year in revenue, which Fischer said the FBI gets to keep.
So far, law enforcement agencies in 15 states and 10 federal agencies are directly linked to the new system. Agencies without the equipment needed to submit fingerprints electronically still send in paper fingerprint cards. These are turned over to Lockheed Martin Information Services, which has a contract with the FBI to convert them to electronic data for processing.
UNDER SUPERVISION: The number of Americans who are under some form of supervision in the criminal justice system just keeps growing.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the nation's total estimated "correctional population" reached a record of almost 5.9 million last year, a 35.5 percent increase since 1990. This included 1.232 million state and federal prison inmates, 584,372 local jail inmates, 704,964 people on parole and 3.417 million who are on probation. During the first eight years of this decade, the state and federal prison population increased by almost 66 percent.
The report marked the first time that the number of people on probation or parole exceeded 4 million. But the use of probation and parole appear to be moving in opposite directions.
The adult probation population grew by 3.7 percent last year, more than the average annual growth of 3.1 percent since 1990. Reflecting hardening attitudes toward parole in some states, the parole population grew more slowly--1.5 percent in 1998, less than half the average annual increase of 3.6 percent since 1990.
Virginia led the nation with a 37.4 percent decline in its parole population. Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said much of the reduction was the result of a law that took effect in 1995 that requires state prison inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. Several other states that reported sharp drops in their parole populations have enacted similar laws.
Maryland's parole population declined by 1.5 percent and the District of Columbia's by 14.6 percent last year.