THE same technology that brought you faster check-out lines at the corner grocery store now promises to be the cutting edge in jailhouse surveillance.
The bar code, a retail device employed since the early 1980s, inaugurates its newest use this week as a key part of the just-opened Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.
Personalized bar-coded wristbands affixed to each alleged offender send signals to a central computer every time the suspect changes locations within the lockup.
The ''accountability scan'' is not the only innovation at Baltimore's busy central booking, which processes between 200 and 250 men and women each day. It is part of a broader security and information capability that has already been used elsewhere in bits and pieces, but never coordinated in one place.
The technologies include computerized fingerprinting and on-site video bail reviews. They help speed up the booking process, beef up monitoring, and reduce risk by eliminating transporting detainees to hearings across town.
All this makes the Baltimore facility the most sophisticated operation for charging and tracking alleged criminals, and the prototype for the 21st century, says Lamont Flanagan, commissioner of Maryland's division of pretrial detention services. ''It's speed, efficiency, and quality - it finally enables us to keep abreast of our own criminal-justice system,'' he says.
''We have to be constantly on guard,'' says Leonard Sipes Jr., director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. ''We are developing technologies that provide instant information on criminal histories'' replete with rap sheets, fingerprints, and video photo identifications. Streamlining procedures and rapid supply of information should ease the burden on Baltimore, which makes 75,000 arrests each year - about 10 percent of the city's population.
Commissioner Flanagan says he has not heard from the American Civil Liberties Union about a possible breach of detainees' rights. On the contrary, he says, ''we are safeguarding their liberties'' because the quick access to a broad array of information allows authorities to more easily identify suspects who may be wrongfully held.
The information bank, moreover, is available to those on all sides of a case - police and prosecutors as well as defense attorneys and courts.
Law-enforcement officials say the combined technologies could put more cops back on the streets and help solve outstanding cases by freeing up officers from time-consuming paperwork and making information available as soon as they request it.
''If we can take the four hours an officer spends booking people and do it in 45 minutes, that means there are three-plus more hours of police time on the streets,'' says Mr. Sipes, a former state trooper. ''That can return hundreds of thousands of hours back to the force.''
''This process will initiate criminal cases,'' he says. ''When you book one guy for burglary you may be able to tie him into an armed robbery in a matter of seconds,'' he adds, by downloading outstanding warrants, tracing aliases, or pulling up fingerprints and photos.
At the Maryland State Penitentiary, which adjoins the state-of-the-art booking center, alleged offenders who fail to make bail after they are charged with a crime ''wind up at the pen next door,'' explains an officer.
Once suspects' data are plugged into the computerized system, law enforcement around the state and ultimately nationwide can search for current and old files on individuals and access warrants, fingerprints, detention records, even mug shots.
Before the Baltimore facility was opened this week, booking centers could search their own county files for records of an arrested party, but inter-county computerized coordination simply did not exist.
Barbara King, a Maryland state official who oversees the new system, asserts the $11 million investment in hardware, software, and maintenance will pay off handsomely in the future. It's statewide and ultimate national use, she says, guarantees an economy of scale.
Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says she saw the trend gaining momentum when she served at the Department of Justice. In the next 10 years, she says, Baltimore's integrated system ''will be up and running throughout the country.''