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Released September 2, 2003

By David Tisdale

HATTIESBURG - A database developed at The University of Southern Mississippi between two unlikely academic partners is proving to be a valuable asset to the Forrest County juvenile justice system, and could be a model program statewide.

Two years ago, the Southern Miss School of Social Work and the university's computer science department joined forces to develop a data management system for the Forrest County Youth Court and Detention Center as a way for area agencies serving delinquent youth in the system to access information about clients from the same source.

Previously, individual agencies relied on their own records, but tracking youth in the juvenile justice system could often be difficult without knowledge of their status with regard to other agencies involved with their case.

With federal funding available to Forrest County and the city of Hattiesburg, a cooperative agreement was reached with officials at the university to develop a database that could streamline existing information and make the legal system more efficient.

"When we started, there was a lot of duplication of data entry (between youth court and detention center)," said Dr. Tim Rehner, a professor in the Southern Miss School of Social Work. "Our goal was to create an integrated system."

The computer program, known as SWORD, helps personnel with various agencies that serve youth by providing them a single database they can use to fulfill the necessary reporting requirements that while similar, are not identical to each other. SWORD tracks caseloads, the names of those serving as counselor for the offender, and various data about the youth such as age, address and type of offense. Confidentiality and information security is also maintained through the use of a virtual private network (VPN).

"Our plan is to make it available to all the various agencies that serve in one way or another youth and their families, from mental health providers to truancy officers, and the different entities that serve these youth will be given differing levels of access (to the database)," said Dr. Mike Forster, director of the Southern Miss School of Social Work. "It's going to make a world of difference to have up-to-date, comprehensive information."

Rehner said the funding, which came from a federal program known as Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant (originating from the U.S. Justice Department) is a unique example of cooperation between various public entities to maximize the effect of grant money for a given area. "It's the only program I know pooling these dollars together," Rehner said.

The $60,000 grant allows for the funding of four doctoral students in scientific computing, working in conjunction with social service personnel, many of whom are graduates of the Southern Miss School of Social Work. Two state-of-the-art computer workstations located in the school's offices provide the setting for the development and maintenance of SWORD.

"It really helps with how we process cases and prevent gaps in the (juvenile justice) system, and helps us do our job much better," said Mike McPhail, Forrest County and Youth Court Judge. "It helps to craft a case plan that's suited for all parties involved, including the child and the parents. You have background information you can build on."

In addition to developing new relationships with another academic department on campus, the project is one Rehner would like to see put in place across Mississippi. "Our vision is to make this program available statewide," he said.



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September 4, 2003 4:16 PM