Technology Eases Corrections Crowding

Tougher jail sentences and mandatory sentencing requirements mean state departments of corrections are faced with more overcrowding problems than ever before.

by / May 31, 1997
Despite evidence of a decreasing crime rate, the corrections and jail population is growing at an unprecedented rate. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1995 the state prison population increased 7 percent and the local jail population 7.9 percent. Mandatory sentencing requirements and related court mandates are all contributing to this nearly unmanageable prison and jail population. With state and federal lawmakers continually responding to public concern about crime, there appears to be no relief from rising incarceration rates.

These circumstances have left corrections departments looking for solutions to overcrowding. And a growing number of corrections officials are turning to information technology to provide the framework for those solutions.

G2 Research estimates that corrections spending on information technology totaled $2.6 billion in 1996. With spending on applications growing at 18 percent annually over the next five years, corrections is among the fastest growing state and local government market segments.

Utilizing advanced technologies such as biometric imaging, smart cards and videoconferencing, corrections departments are turning to a variety of applications like inmate tracking, case management, and telemedicine systems to help manage their comprehensive responsibilities.

Departments of corrections are saddled with an exhaustive range of responsibilities. Officials must provide not only basic food, clothing, and shelter for inmates, but must also satisfy inmates' medical, rehabilitation, transportation and banking requirements. In addition, corrections must track inmates from the date they are booked until they are released on probation or parole. These are just a few of the factors which are creating an increased need for streamlined business processes, cost savings and more efficient communications capabilities. The following highlights the key issues which are presently driving correctional information technology applications and investment.

Over the last few years, more than 20 states have passed some form of a "three strikes and you're out" law. Coupled with mandatory sentencing requirements and truth-in-sentencing measures, the burden for overcrowded and understaffed facilities is only compounded. The ramifications are state prison systems operating between 14 percent and 25 percent above their reported capacity. The growing offender population is driving new prison construction and a heightened awareness of the need for integrated communication through the public safety and criminal justice environment. Evidence of this increased awareness can be seen in the advanced communications often incorporated in the newer facilities.

Because of an increased demand for services, corrections departments must search for ways to more effectively manage workflows and processes. As a result, interest in outsourcing prison operations in their entirety has surfaced in some departments. Corrections departments also find that hiring an outside vendor to manage nontraditional responsibilities, such as banking, allows a facility to focus on the primary task of inmate management and supervision.

Finally, state departments of corrections are regularly impacted by federal mandates and programs. These mandates can specify correctional information that must be provided to federal agencies. For example, in the border states, departments of corrections are automating their systems and connecting them to Immigration and Naturalization Service field offices to comply with federal regulations and obtain the necessary funding.

As data sharing between various facilities in the prison system becomes more and more of a necessity, many corrections departments are reassessing their traditional mainframe environments and looking instead toward relational databases and client/server environments. In particular, advanced primary application requirements for jail management systems, case management systems, inmate- or offender-based tracking systems, and accounting/finance systems are driving corrections departments toward distributed environments. In a recent G2 survey, over 60 percent of the corrections respondents indicated plans to move to a more distributed information processing environment over the next five years. Further evidence of a shift in department of corrections' utilization of information technology can be seen in their acceptance of new data management tools and innovative technologies.

Data warehousing and database integration are two areas which are emerging as dominant solutions to data management. Where corrections data management tools have traditionally been used to store data according to "what is happening today," G2 has identified a clear trend of corrections departments implementing systems which will illustrate patterns and track a particular program's success.

Biometric imaging and electronic inmate tracking mechanisms -- which allow low-risk offenders to remain in the community -- are growing in popularity and are under consideration by numerous corrections departments.

Videoconferencing systems are growing in popularity among corrections departments and are being utilized in a variety of applications, especially at the county level. For example, video arraignment permits court hearings to take place directly from the county jail, while telemedicine allows medical exams of prisoners without ever leaving the facility.

Finally, tools such as electronic data capture and internetworked applications enable information regarding cases and offenders to be entered and shared quickly.

Perhaps the most far-reaching trend in today's corrections market is the move toward information systems which integrate department communications, security and computerization. Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, for example, is considering smart card technology to integrate an inmate's tracking device with commissary, medical, and classification information. And Knox County, Tenn., is considering information systems that will integrate law enforcement and detention requirements.

Despite the fact that, on average, more than 75 percent of state justice funds are dedicated to corrections, a lack of funding is the primary obstacle to corrections departments' ability to employ technological solutions. With funds at a premium, corrections officials must often prioritize immediate concerns -- such as infrastructure, transportation, housing, security and administration -- over information technology expenditures. Moreover, because corrections departments receive the vast majority of their operating budgets from general state funds, they must compete with education and human services agencies for their budgets.

Despite the barriers, corrections departments are clearly beginning
to embrace technology solutions. While relatively behind the curve compared to other state and local government agency segments, corrections officials are acknowledging that technology is a critical tool which can help ease the tremendous burden the departments face.