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Electronic Records Program 1995-1996 Report

Appendix B: Sentencing Commission Database Report

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This document is a report of the attempt by the State Archives to take custody of historically significant research data from the now-defunct Sentencing Commission. The report highlights several issues facing program managers in the development and maintenance of modern information systems and includes recommendations to minimize the possibility of irretrievable historical electronic records in the future.


Because of poor management and lack of cooperation the State Archives received from Sentencing Commission staff, Wisconsin has lost access to two electronic databases with long-term value.

Electronic records specialists at the State Archives spent many hours trying to recover the Sentencing Commission data, all to no avail. They sought help from experts at UW-Madison, in Chicago, and abroad. None of these resources overcame the problems. When State Archives staff learned of the necessity of specialized versions of non-current hardware (no longer available through the Commission nor at the State Historical Society) to recover the Commission's databases, they ceased recovery efforts.

The problems with the Sentencing Commission's records highlight several issues facing program managers in the development and maintenance of modern information systems. These issues include:

  • Design and development of electronic recordkeeping systems,
  • Compliance with guidelines, administrative rules and statutes relating to records management,
  • Training for program managers and other staff in maintenance of electronic recordkeeping systems,
  • The role of the State Historical Society in managing government records in electronic formats.


Information of all kinds contributes an absolutely vital element in boosting Wisconsin's emerging economy. Though electronic information systems create, transmit, and store more and more of this valuable resource, system managers have given relatively little attention to insuring that such systems can, over time, maintain information in useable forms.

This report describes one example of how valuable electronic data from a state office became unretrievable and unreadable through lack of adequate system management procedures. This case involved the Sentencing Commission. The problems that caused the loss of important data potentially affect many other automated information systems created and maintained by state and local governments in Wisconsin.


The Sentencing Commission

The Sentencing Commission, created in 1983 under Wis. Stat. 15.105(17) and attached to the Department of Administration, consisted of 17 members including the Secretary of Corrections, the chairperson of the Parole Commission, the Public Defender, the Attorney General and 13 members appointed by the Governor to serve six year terms. The Governor selected the Commission's chairperson, and the Commission appointed an executive director from outside classified service for a five year term. In 1995, the biennial budget legislation terminated the Commission.

The Sentencing Commission had a mandate to develop sentencing guidelines in the absence of the Supreme Court taking such action. The Commission also provided training and ongoing consultation on the guideline system, sentencing reform, and alternatives to sentencing to all jurisdiction judges, attorneys, public defenders, and parole and probations officers. To develop and monitor the use of sentencing guidelines, the Commission collected data from the court and from the Department of Corrections. The agency designed and maintained two databases to manage the data using SIR 2.1.3 statistical database management software.

The first database, Felony Sentencing Data, tracked basic demographic information on felony inmates of Wisconsin including their age, race, gender, sentence, criminal history, and the nature of the latest offense. The Sentencing Commission used the second database, Felony Sentencing Guideline Data, to monitor compliance with the sentencing guidelines and statewide sentencing patterns.

The State Historical Society's Electronic Records Program

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin serves as trustee to the State of Wisconsin for the selection, preservation, and accessibility of state government records with continuing value. In 1994, the State Historical Society initiated the Electronic Records Program. The program has begun to create a plan for managing electronic records with continuing or long- term value. At the end of the first year of the program, staff learned that the Sentencing Commission would go out of business. The Commission had scheduled two electronic databases for permanent retention (Records Disposition Authorizations 505A/0001 and 505A/0005). Because of this, program staff offered their services to aid in transferring these databases to the appropriate agencies.

Chronology of Data Recovery and Preservation Efforts

  1. June 1994: The Sentencing Commission first scheduled the two databases in 1994 and designated them for permanent retention. Contrary to the Guidelines for the Management of Electronic Information, issued in 1993 by the Public Records Board, the Commission failed to include any description of the system design or version of the software used on its records schedule.
  2. May 1995: the State Archives forwarded a letter (May 8, 1995) to the Commission's records officer indicating that it could provide assistance in dealing with the transfer of the databases to the appropriate agency. The archivist then completed an appraisal of the record series maintained by the commission and determined that the two databases had long-term and historical significance and should be transferred to the State Archives.
  3. June 1995: State Archives requested that the Sentencing Commission not format its hard drives until archivists had determined that data files transferred to the State Archives were complete and readable.
  4. August 1995: Commission offices closed, surplussing specialized 286 hardware, despite the request from the State Archives to lend one such 286 work station to help with data recovery; the Sentencing Commission transferred scheduled databases on a tape backup system.
  5. September 1995: Electronic records program archivist began analysis and recovery efforts on the Commission databases.
  6. October-November 1995: Electronic records program archivist sought help from technical experts:
    • Software manufacturer contacted,
    • Data conversion services contacted,
    • TechPartners listserv contacted, leading to discovery of problems with the Commission's management of SIR software,
    • Economic and Social Research Council Data Archive (England) contacted, existence of machine-specific code in SIR software learned,
    • Technical support staff member from Sentencing Commission contacted, need for specialized 286 hardware learned.
  7. December 1995: State Archives staff learned that no specialized 286 hardware available at the Sentencing Commission nor at SHSW.

Without the necessary database management software and the 286 hardware for running the databases, the electronic records archivist could not proceed with recovery efforts beyond this point.


The loss of the Sentencing Commission's electronic data bases indicates far greater threats to Wisconsin's government information than evidenced by this one office. It highlights several basic issues in the management of information systems that require resolution to prevent many similar losses.

1. Design and development of electronic recordkeeping systems

Like many other state offices, the Sentencing Commission used proprietary software with limited capabilities to migrate data to new formats.

RECOMMENDATION: As a public policy, the state should require that all agencies, commissions, boards, and offices use software capable of exporting to standard formats and develop migration strategies to insure that data with long-term value does not remain in obsolete formats or on fragile media.

2. Compliance with current guidelines, administrative rules and statutes on records management

The Sentencing Commission did not follow the Guidelines for the Management of Electronic Information which the Public Records Board issued in 1993.

RECOMMENDATION: The Board should update and expand this publication and educate state data administrators, information systems managers, and records/forms officers about its basic points. The Board should have clearer authority to require compliance with statutes, administrative rules, and guidelines on electronic information management.

3. Training for program managers and other staff in maintenance of electronic recordkeeping systems

By themselves, new administrative rules, guidelines, or statutes will not fully protect the electronic records of state government. Information technology administrators, program managers, and records officers require training in the procedures required by new policies. The report of the Study Committee on Reduction of State Records Storage Needs also finds a need for such training.

RECOMMENDATION: DOA should develop a training program to accompany new rules, guidelines, or statutes on the proper development and maintenance of information systems that create, keep, and store government records.

4. Role of the State Historical Society in managing Wisconsin's government records in electronic formats

The State Archives at the State Historical Society has the responsibility to identify, select, preserve, and provide access to state records in all media with long-term or historical value. It has the expertise to handle electronic records, if it receives them in standard and readable formats.

RECOMMENDATION: to ensure the preservation, authenticity, and accessibility of government records in electronic formats, the staff of the State Archives must be involved in the formulation of system development and system management guidelines under which all state government data will be managed.

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