In 1997, the city had a plan. That plan was to update an old computer system from the 1970s while also consolidating all the criminal justice data in the city. Information gathered by the Police Department, District Attorney and Public Defender’s office would all be combined into a single hub for easy and secure access by all the departments involved.
Fourteen years later, there are still no answers as to when the project will be completed. And there’s no answer to another big question, as well: At a meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday, Deputy City Administrator Linda Young told Supervisor David Chiu that she is not even sure what the project’s current budget is.
“This is unacceptable,” said Chiu.
The project, named the Justice Tracking Information System (JUSTIS for short) began in 1997, with an original budget of $920,000, said Chiu. That was, he added, quite a lot of money back then.
Since then, JUSTIS has cost the city almost $25.5 million, by Chiu’s estimates.
Young disagreed with Chiu’s assertion that the project has gone tens of millions of dollars over budget. JUSTIS has the money to complete the project, she said. Development was slowed because of a staffing shortage, but two new people have just been hired.
Supervisor David Campos, also on the committee, chimed in, asking if Young had a timeline for the project’s completion.
Young looked beseechingly at the group of JUSTIS staff members standing behind her. None of them spoke.
“No,” she said, finally.
Supervisors David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi asked if there is a way to get a concrete update on how the project is going. Last year, they said, they were given a 302-page booklet detailing the benefits of JUSTIS, without a budget clearly stated. Also unstated: managerial salaries and funds specifically allocated to moving the project forward. This had not gone unnoticed by the local news media.
At Thursday’s meeting, the most the supervisors could get from the JUSTIS team was that the first phase of the project should be completed by the end of the year. One of the main hitches, the SFPD’s reluctance to relinquish its database, is close to being resolved.
“It’s because SFPD’s current database is having technical issues,” said Susan Griffin, a Police Department spokeswoman. “By October or November we should be ready to combine.”
“How many more phases will there be?” asked Mirkarimi.
“It depends,” said Young. “You have a commitment that the project will be completed.”
But will, Chiu asked, the database even be compatible with current hardware and software once it’s ready?
Young turned around and looked at the team. Finally, one of them stepped forward. The short answer is yes, he said. The Oracle software that JUSTIS uses can be easily upgraded. The software has been updated five times since the project began, from Oracle 8 to Oracle 10G, even though it has never been used. An upgrade to Oracle 11 is planned soon.
Hardware upgrades, he said, are going to be more expensive — likely to cost millions.
But, said Eileen Hirst, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, there will be many rewards for the city once the database is completed. It will save lives by helping law enforcement personnel combine records and identify high-risk criminals, so that people are not accidentally released because of records lurking on one system but not another. The District Attorney will be able to, for the first time, see the prior misdemeanors on the records of people who may be charged with felony convictions.
Chiu asked her if she could share JUSTIS’s budget for operations and development.
She looked back. No answer.
“No,” she said.
Or its budget in total?
“I am not so confident that we are where we need to be,” said Campos. It is, he added, difficult to stay on budget when there is no budget. “There has to be a timeline and goals you need to provide. It has gone south for a very long time.”
Why, asked Chiu, has it taken so long to complete the project?
“I don’t know,” said Young. “I just got here six months ago.” She inherited the project from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and is still trying to figure out how it works.
This is why, she said, she hadn’t been able to get budget figures to Chiu at the last meeting of the Public Safety Committee, three months ago. But she’d definitely have them by the next meeting. Which would be three months from now.
Previous managers had promised him the same thing, said Chiu. But the meeting was nearly over. “In conclusion,” he said, “after 14 years, we still have no answers to our questions.”