Level of Gvt: County
Function: Law Enforcement
Problem/situation: There are not enough probation officers to handle the growing number of cases around the U.S.
Solution: Some counties are implementing kiosks where probationers can check in automatically.
Jurisdiction: San Bernardino County, Calif., Duluth, Minn. Costa Mesa, Calif.
Vendors: Infotec, Novell.
By James Evans
At first glance, it seems that George Orwell's dark futurist novel "1984" has come home to roost in the criminal justice system. People on probation, outcast, feared or simply the lowest of public priorities, are deemed unworthy of actual human contact, and instead must report to a machine.
Sure, the statistics cry out for help. Crime continues to worsen. The public is frightened and outraged. Additional funds are provided to police departments to hire new officers, so more arrests are made. Jail facilities are swamped by the heightened conviction rate, which in turn overextends the probation system even more. More probation officers are needed to handle strained workloads, and yet with taxpayers resolutely refusing to give another dollar to anything that smacks of rehabilitation, it's doubtful the workforce will be augmented.
Clearly something has to be done. But is automation the answer? Will forcing probationers to announce themselves to a computer, answer some impersonal questions and then move onto the the streets again solve any of the frustrating problems? Is there any dignity for either the officers or the offenders in such a system? Does it enhance public safety?
Yes, to all questions, say probation officers in two jurisdictions - one in California and the other in Minnesota. Not only do their overworked and undermanned departments appreciate a new computer system that allows probationers to check in from a remote location, but the probationers like it too. They don't have to make a long trip down to the department, and then wait, wasting time while the officer finishes other work or deals with another emergency. All the probationers have to do is push a few buttons to show they haven't skipped town, maybe breathe into a breathalyzer - if abstention from alcohol is a condition of their probation - and go on their way. The officer is free to handle more important duties, like focus on more dangerous clients.
"We've had very good responses from clients," said David Oberhelman, supervising probation officer in San Bernardino County, Calif., and a member of the San Bernardino City Council. "It's user friendly, it's very, very accessible to people without high degrees of education, and it works without invading privacy."
"There have been relatively few problems from the probationer's perspective," said Tom Roy, chief probation officer for Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which encompasses five counties in and around Duluth, Minn. "A few have needed assistance, but you have to keep in mind that this is a techno generation probation group."
Oberhelman and Roy are qualified to speak because both work in departments that are testing a remote contact system created by Infotec Development Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif. Employing strategically placed kiosks on the probationers side - linked to a network of personal computers in the probation department - Infotec's electronic probation reporting system, called Check-In, is looking like the answer to a lot of anguish in one of the unglamorous areas of criminal justice. While both Oberhelman and Roy caution that Check-In doesn't unravel every knotty problem faced by departments around the nation, it does relieve mounting pressure and douses gloomy professionals with some very welcome hope.
Automated Reporting Center Project Coordinators and Probation Officers. Left: Frank Kampa. Right: Michael Tate
HOW IT WORKS
During the initial meeting with a probation officer, one or more of