September-October 2012

CJIS made simple

Jana K. McCown

First Assistant District Attorney in Williamson County

A discussion of the Computerized Criminal History side of the Texas Criminal Justice Information System

If only it were easy to explain CJIS to criminal justice workers. The concept is simple, but sometimes the implementation is not. That’s why for the last several decades, Texas has been trying to figure out how to accurately report individuals’ criminal history and collect crime statistics that are uniformly reported across the state. Progress has been made in small baby steps and with legislative “encouragement,” but progress is indeed being made. Wouldn’t it be nice, in 2020, to be able to run a computerized criminal history with the assurance that the information is both correct and complete?1

The Texas Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) has two major components, the Computerized Criminal History System (CCH) and the Corrections Tracking System (CTS). The CTS is managed by the Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and will not be examined here.2 This article is limited in scope to a discussion of the Computerized Criminal History side of CJIS.

If you remember, beginning in the mid to late ’80s, prosecutors were just beginning to have personal-sized computers available in the office. It was a far cry from today where you can find a computer in just about every office. In 1989, Chapter 60 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure established the requirements for criminal history reporting to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).3 The Computerized Criminal History System (CCH) was defined as the “data base containing arrest, disposition, and other criminal history maintained by the Department of Public Safety.”4 This is where the printout in a case file showing the arrest, charging, and conviction data for a defendant most likely comes from. Like any database, however, the accuracy of the information in that report depends upon the data input by arresting agencies, prosecutors, and clerks. Combined with the fact that electronic reporting was pretty much nonexistent before 1995 and that dispositions were often handwritten or done by typewriters and mailed to DPS, it’s not too surprising that early criminal histories are often a little vague and frequently incomplete.

In retrospect, it appears that the original challenge was to find a way to track an arrest and find out what happened after the arrest. The solution, still in place today, was to assign an incident number for the arrest and a state identification number (SID) for the person arrested. The Incident Tracking Number (TRN) and Incident Tracking Number Suffix (TRS) are the numbers used to link a charged offense from arrest through disposition. If you are not one of the people responsible for reporting to CJIS in your office, it’s likely that you have never heard of or thought about how these numbers are used. The TRN is the number assigned to the arrest, and the TRS numbers are used for the individual and sometimes multiple offenses that can be charged during an arrest.

The other number that you have probably heard about but might not know what it means is the offense code. Offense codes are eight-digit numbers (currently) that are assigned to specific criminal offenses. DPS is responsible for maintaining and assigning the offense codes, and a new set of codes is released after every legislative session with some additional updates and changed codes released in between. Offense codes can be helpful in identifying the number of cases with a specific crime involved if you have a computer software program that can pull data using an offense code. It is important, however, that the folks in the local jail or law enforcement agency entering arrest data as well as all others involved in data entry for prosecutors and clerks have a solid, working knowledge of which codes should be used for a specific offense. Some offenses have several different options depending upon either the degree of the offense, the mental state required, or both. When the incorrect code is used, it is more difficult to accurately determine what happened in a specific case. Many times the only way to be completely certain is to obtain copies of the actual charging instruments and court documents from the county where the offense occurred. DPS doesn’t make it any easier by changing codes for the same offense every so often.

The good news

In the early ’90s, the federal government provided funds to improve the system through a couple of initiatives. The Criminal Justice Policy Council was mandated by the governor and legislature to plan for improvements and implement the Texas Criminal History Improvement Program (TCHIP) and received grant funds to help with its implementation. Two of the major improvements in the ’90s were the introduction of the Live Scan electronic fingerprint identification and reporting systems and the beginnings of electronic reporting to DPS of prosecutor and court disposition records. The latter project was known as the Electronic Disposition Reporting Project (EDR) and was funded by the Criminal Justice Division (CJD) of the governor’s office through additional federal grants.5

By 2002, however, the Criminal Justice Policy Counsel estimated that only about 60 percent of the dispositions in local courts were present in CCH.6 Clearly, there was room for improvement. Although the Department of Public Safety was given the mandate to collect the data and maintain these systems, the agency had no ability to discipline anyone for non-compliance. Thus, in 2009 the 81st Legislature began to encourage counties with a reporting disposition percentage under 90 percent to work towards improving those percentages. Article 60.10 of the Code of Criminal Procedure required those counties to create Data Reporting Improvement Plans, which have now been added to the DPS website. These plans required the participating counties to create a local data advisory board and begin a review of their data reporting processes with the goal of increasing reporting. Art. 60.10(g) sunsets the entire article—and the requirement for these boards—as of Sept. 1, 2013, but nothing prohibits these boards from remaining in place to continue to monitor progress in the years to come.

It wasn’t until the Governor’s Office Criminal Justice Division (CJD) took a step in December 2011 that real progress has been made. CJD issued a memo and sent it to all CJD “grant recipients of future funds.” With a single sentence the incentive to report changed significantly and results have been astounding. Here’s the sentence:

Effective September 1, 2012, each county must comply with Chapter 60 reporting requirements in order for the county or any political subdivision within that county to be eligible for grants under CJD’s Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program.

This possible loss of a funding source accomplished what years of encouragement apparently could not. In January 2012, only 55 out of 254 counties in Texas were at an overall percentage for disposition reporting of 90 percent or more for the five-year period of 2006–2010. As a direct result of the CJD memo and with the assistance of CJD and DPS, on August 1, 2012, there were 229 counties that had reached an overall percentage of 90 percent or better for the years 2006 through 2010. In other words, 90 percent of Texas counties are at 90 percent or better!

Where do we go from here?

We keep on working to insure accurate and complete reporting to DPS of our criminal history records. For prosecutors’ offices that means reporting charging decisions on every case. It also means that county officials must work together to make sure employees have the proper training and knowledge to comply with these requirements. And lest you think about resting, there was one more thing in “the memo.”
Effective September 1, 2013, any entity, public or private, in a county that does not report at 90 percent or above will be ineligible to receive grants from any state or federal fund sources managed by CJD. (emphasis added by this author)

If you work in one of the 25 counties still not in compliance, don’t despair. Your CJIS representative can help with training and answers about your problem cases. There may even still be some grant funding left to help your county attain compliance.

Why should you care about whether a defendant’s criminal history is reported properly? This is really more of a rhetorical question. We all know the frustration of not being able to look at the CCH and tell what happened to that previous felony arrest. We have all seen the DWI suspects who missed out on a mandatory blood draw because the law enforcement officer did not know that this suspect had two previous DWI convictions. So many enhancements are dependent upon our ability to find out the defendant’s previous history: felon in possession of a firearm, misdemeanors that become felonies because of previous convictions, automatic life for certain sex offenders with previous convictions, and the list goes on.

At the rate technology is improving, it won’t be long before a complete criminal history, DNA profile, fingerprint, and bank account numbers can all be found in one database, downloadable to your SIM card, iPad, flash drive, and implantable chip (for those of us who lose things) and scanned onto a driver’s license for law enforcement use. But until then, keep taking those baby steps!


1 “Maybe if … we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, Capitol Records, 1966.
2 A Brief Guide to the Texas Computerized Criminal History System (CCH), Texas Department of Public Safety, August 2003.
3 Added by Acts 1989, 71st Leg., ch. 785, §6.01, eff. Sept. 1, 1989.
4 Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 60.01(3). For years I thought that CCH stood for “complete criminal history.”
5 Overview of Texas Criminal History Improvement Program, Criminal Justice Police Counsel, Tony Fabelo, Ph.D., Executive Director, report from January 2001.
6 A Brief Guide to the Texas Computerized Criminal History System (CCH).