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 a probationer's biometric keys (fingerprints, voice, retina scan, signature dynamics, hand structure) will be captured, along with a digital photo of the face. They will be entered - with case-specific information - into the database. The system's server can be programmed to expect check ins from several times daily to weekly, monthly or longer. Specific questions can be written for each client, which will materialize once positive identification is made.
A person on probation may check in at any kiosk, or can be checked in through the portable unit by the probation officer. At the kiosk, a biometric sample is taken (via scanner) and compared to the one collected during enrollment. Once identification is established, the probationer may check in. The officer can leave written messages for the client, who can respond. When the session is done, a receipt is generated for the probationer's records. The kiosk operates every day, serving a maximum of 180 people in a 24-hour period. The average time probationers are taking to check in is between two and three minutes.
Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which has had about 70 of its 600 probationers using the Infotec system since February 1994, utilizes it in three ways. The principal focus is to maintain contact with clients who pose little or no risk to the public, and who require very little personal supervision. Secondly, it's used in conjunction with normal face-to-face reporting, where a client will come to the department once a month, but will show up in a kiosk once a week for the rest of the month. Lastly, probation violators are given an opportunity to report to a kiosk daily instead of going to jail, which pleases the offender, relieves crowded jail facilities and saves the county about $50 a day per person.
EVALUATING THE PROGRAM
An evaluation of the program by the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota in Duluth gave it high marks for nearly every aspect of the operation, especially for the efficiency of its computerized record keeping and for giving officers more time to deal with their more serious offenders.
"This is in its infancy, so it's still too early to tell what kind of problems it might create, but we're already seeing it as a valuable tool," said Roy. "We don't see that it will ever replace probation officers. There's still a lot of subjective evaluation to be done, so we need humans in the process. The machine won't tell you what your eyes and nose will tell you. But we expect this tool to do a faster and better job. It's an efficiency enhancer."
San Bernardino County has been using only one kiosk for several months as part of a test program, but already Oberhelman wants to keep and expand it, though he too adds that it will never replace officers. "We're only having our lowest risk probationers check in with it, but you can see the value," he said. "It frees up staff and resources to deal with the more risky population. My biggest fear is that the department won't implement it on a permanent basis. The problem is that the county has significant budget restraints, so it's hard to sell new technology."
Yet, all the optimism and praise isn't meant to deny any doubts or apprehensions. "One of my biggest concerns is that a lot of probationers feel alienated from society, and commit crimes because they feel the laws are not their laws," said Roy. "So the inhumanity of this type of technology, [to the probationer] means they aren't deserving of human contact. So I believe it has to be used in addition to human contact, and not as a replacement for human contact."
Roy also said he recommends that any department that wants the system should plan on training support personnel who are familiar with the technology and who can react to flaws in the system. "There are glitches that develop," he said. "We came in one morning and the kiosk [at the department] had spit the receipt paper all over the floor. It was a 600-foot roll."
Check-In, which sells for about $50,500 with installation and training, includes:
A 486 server with a minimum of 4 megabytes of RAM, a 200 megabyte hard disk, a 3.5" floppy drive, and a VGA display monitor, operating over a Novell network with appropriate software.
A 486 enrollment workstation with a minimum of 8 megabytes of RAM, a 200 megabyte hard disk, a 3.5" floppy drive, a VGA monitor, network adapter, software, biometric scanner, laser printer and report generator.
A kiosk containing a 486 computer with a minimum 4 megabytes of RAM, 100 megabyte hard disk, 3.5" floppy drive, VGA touch-screen monitor, network adapter, software, biometric scanner, receipt printer (so the probationer can have tangible proof of the digital encounter), English and Spanish touch screen buttons, and audio instructions (in both languages) for illiterate or confused clients.
The system can be leased, or billed on a transactional basis, according to how often it is used. Rates are negotiable, but per transaction costs generally run between $2 to $4. It also can be expanded to accommodate any size of department, with additional kiosks costing about $35,000 each and registration stations running at $12,000 each. Kiosks also can be equipped with breath analyzers ($3,500) that passively determine alcohol presence during use of the kiosk, a video recorder ($3,000), an electronic camera, a credit card reader to collect restitution payments, and a secure, software-controlled housing to collect cash or check payments (price to be determined at time of purchase). A portable unit consisting of a notebook computer, biometric scanner, electronic camera, breath alcohol sensor, battery and AC power supplies can be purchased for about $25,000.