Technology in Corrections

DC Public Safety Radio

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See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/04/innovative-technology-solutions-in-corrections/

Leonard: From the Nation’s Capital, this is D.C. Public Safety, I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, the topic for today is technology in corrections high priority needs, a really innovative, really interesting document that came out of the RAND Corporation. We have two people by our microphones today. We have Brian Jackson. Brian is Director of the Safety and Justice Program and a senior physical scientist at RAND. His research focuses on technology issues in public safety, including both the use of technology in policing, corrections and the courts and technological use in crime by adversary groups, which I’d love to hear a little bit more about. Joe Russo is a researcher at the University of Denver, focusing on technology issues in the correction sector. He is currently in support of a number of initiatives for the National Law Enforcement in Corrections Technology Center, a program of the National Institute of Justice. To Joe and to Brian, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Brian: Thanks very much.

Joe: Thank you.

Leonard: All right. Joe’s been at our microphones several times before. Every time we do a show on technology it turns out to be one of our most popular shows. I read this document and I find it fascinating, “Fostering Innovation in Community and Institutional Corrections: Identifying High Priority Technology and Other Needs in the U.S. Corrections Sector”. There’s a variety of documents that comes out on technology or corrections or the criminal justice system. I define this to be a seminal document. I find this to be one of the most important documents I’ve seen within the correctional arena. Am I overplaying my hand here, Brian or what?

Brian: Well, that’s certainly what we’re trying to do here though the goal of this project really is a very ambitious one to try to help catalyze innovation in the criminal justice community. Certainly we hope that this document will be that important but whether it actually is that important will depend on a lot of other actors in the corrections center to take the ideas that came up in this study and put them into practice.

Leonard: What it does is takes virtually every issue that we have in both community corrections and mainstream corrections, analyzes it, prioritizes, but makes it a priority or puts it in rank order, and figures out whether or not there is technology that could have an impact on those particular issues. I mean all the problems that we have today could have a technological solution. If they do you list them and put them in rank order. In the ballpark?

Brian: Yes, that’s certainly what we did. We did it in collaboration with a lot of practitioners from the community to take advantage of their expertise and their on the ground knowledge, and with their help tried to rank them to identify where to start. There’s always a lot of ways that improvements in technology are practiced could help organizations be more effective or more efficient. The challenge is always to figure out where to start so in this effort we not only try to be comprehensive and look at a lot of the challenges facing corrections, a lot of the potential solutions, but then try to winnow them down to the ones that really looked best to practitioners in the area.

Leonard: Joe, how did the University of Denver that supports JustNet, which is an organization funded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, how did the University of Denver get involved in this project?

Joe: [00:03:46] Well, we’re partners with RAND on a larger NIJ funded effort to identify high priority needs across the criminal justice sector. Our role in support of RAND is specific to the corrections community so we assisted with developing this report to assembling the advisory panel and so on.

Leonard: Joe’s been by our microphones a thousand times again producing some of our most popular programs in terms of talking about technology and corrections technology in the criminal justice system. Okay, gentlemen, now that we’ve introduced the document … oh, and by the way, the document is going to be in the show notes, the address for the document on the website www.RAND R-A-N-D .ORG, www.RAND R-A-N-D .org. Oh, before going into further into the show, Brian, for the uninitiated, what is RAND?

Brian: Oh, well certainly. RAND is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. We do research for a wide variety of clients, a lot of them in government, federal agencies, state and local government, but also the private sector. Our mission is to improve policy and decision making through research analysis. We’re a lot of academic researchers but we’re academic researchers that really judge our success by whether what we do makes things better in the real world.

Leonard: For the practitioner community I’ve been following RAND since the beginning of my academic career. RAND has put out some of the most famous and well known studies involved in the criminal justice system. I remember decades ago reading your research on habitual offenders and found it fascinating and that prompted a discussion throughout the criminal justice system. Joe, how do people use this document? How do policy makers, how do practitioners use this document?

Joe: As you mentioned, it’s a seminal document and foundation in a lot of ways. Then part of our approach was to establish the state of the art so we took a look across the spectrum of what corrections is, what it has been and identified the different technologies and different policies and practice that are currently in place. Then from there, as we alluded to, we identified emerging or current needs and tried to develop associated on problems or ways to address those problems.

How various groups can use this information is diverse depending on the audience. Private industry can use this information because it’s a very valuable source of needs from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, from the end users themselves who have articulated what their needs are. Private industry who is interested in making investment in the sector have the blueprint that identifies a starting point of what the needs of the community are. From the federal perspective, funding sources again have that ready made source of that previously identified high priority area so they can target their research and development portfolios accordingly.

Leonard: All right, either one of you can come in and answer this question. There are seven million people under the adult correctional system, the supervision of the adult correctional system, every single day, seven million people. Seven-hundred-thousand people come out of prisons on a year to year basis. That does not include the numbers in terms of the juvenile justice system. That does not include people coming out of the jail system. There are enormous numbers of people. We in the criminal justice system, I’ve heard from my peers throughout the country that they are overwhelmed by the numbers, overwhelmed by the complexity, overwhelmed by the problems. What we’re talking about is, I don’t know, how many problems do we want to look at. Mental health, so if I said mental health from a technology point of view, what would the response of the document be?

Brian: Well, I can jump in on that. Certainly those are two of the really big challenges that the practitioners that we worked with here talked about. It’s simply the ideas of scale and also the challenges of mental health issues in prisoner populations that the correctional system is having to deal with today. I mean when you look at the options that were talked about in the document, they ranged from low tech approaches that are training to help deal with mental health issues, all the way up to high technology activities, better censors or systems to try to prevent suicide attempts in institutional settings, or in the case of the large supervision burden for individuals who are in the community correction system, better technologies to do individual tracking and make that a more effective element of corrective supervision and dealing with offenders in that context.

Really that’s what, for me at least, was one of the most interesting responses or interesting findings that came out of this work is that these very large problems can have multiple solutions to them, some of which may be technological systems, but some of them may be more about policies and practice, how we do things. The opportunities there to match solutions to the needs of different correctional systems and so on is an opportunity to make a broader change across the sector as a whole.

Leonard: Right. There are going to be practitioners throughout the country listening to this program today going, “Oh, thank God.” This is so needed because the discussion throughout the country today is taking about less use on prisons, less reliance on mainstream incarceration and a greater reliance on community supervision. Community supervision is sitting there going, “Oh my heavens, there’s no way we can take on more people.” I mean it would have to be a technological solution because the money isn’t there. The average caseload right now … I don’t think there is a national average but I think it comes close to 150 to one parole and probation agent. I have seen cases where it’s 250, 300 cases for one parole and probation agent.

Here in my agency, the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C., we are so lucky. We have under 50 to one ratios but we’re unusual and we’re lucky because we’re a federal agency but for everybody else they’re overwhelmed. They’re saying, “If you can’t give me a technological solution to handling this huge caseload and to provide the services and the supervision concurrently, if you can’t provide me a tech solution, we can’t do this.” Are they right?

Joe: I’ll jump in. I think they’re exactly right. It’s interesting that this issue was brought up by both parts of the panel. The community institutional correction side brought up the issue that a lot of the prison realignment strategies, particularly in California, have created a burden on the local jails. They going to have to identify the need for more alternatives to incarceration to get folks out of the jails. Well, at the same time in a nearby room, the community correction folks were gathering and they said, “Well, you know what, we’re getting all these highly violent folks who we typically would not previously get. Due to realignment efforts across the board now they’re being pushed into the community so we have a situation now known as mass supervision versus mass incarceration, which gets to exactly what you’re speaking about.

We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the tools to deal with this ever growing population. What the community corrections folks said the need was more targeted resources specifically for community corrections so they can meet this challenge. It was interesting how both groups identified similar problems coming from different approaches.

Leonard: What would be the technological solution? What immediately comes to my mind would be global positioning or satellite supervision of individuals, GPS supervision of individual offenders but, as effective as that may be, that puts a brand new set of requirements and a brand new workload onto the shoulders of parole and probation agents. In some cases, technology is a plus and in some cases it is not nearly as good as people make it out to be. I’m not questioning the effectiveness of GPS, I’m simply saying that instead of talking to this person once a week, now they’re getting data points, hundreds of them, every single day and they’re saying that they can’t process all that information.

Brian: Well, figuring out ways to improve technologies as they exist now was a big element at what we covered in the advisory panel discussions. In that case, one of the things that was discussed was better analysis tools, where reviewing those hundreds of data points didn’t produce hundreds of false alarms that were bouncing into the inbox of all of these supervision officers, but analytics that helped filter that data stream to make it possible to focus on the truly important elements of that.

Other pieces of technology, in terms of trying to deal with volume and deal with distance that came up, were ideas like the ability to deliver programming at a distance, whether that’s using a technology like Skype to allow people to more efficiently meet with the people that they were supervising, or in the case of treatment provision, the people that they were treating as part of their supervision. You’ll have better understandings and evaluations of the effectiveness of those alternative models of delivering that could help remove some of the travel burdens, if you will, in a jurisdiction where officers have to travel over long distances to visit their supervervisees in person.

Leonard: To deal with individuals on supervision through video visitation, either through … I don’t know. My app on my iPhone or my iPad gives me the right to instantaneously communicate with my wife through her iPhone or iPad. Technologies along those lines to deliver services to individuals to ask them questions or to supervise them, that’s what we’re talking about?

Brian: Yes, absolutely but the challenge of understanding whether that’s as effective as the traditional ways of doing that, emphasizing that in order to enable inhibition, we both need the good technology ideas and also need the evaluations, so we have confidence going in that the new ways of doing things will work well.

Leonard: Right. People are saying that, mixing radio shows here, because I’ve done radio shows … I just did a show on video visitation. I’ve done a show on correctional education. People are saying that the overwhelming majority of individuals caught up in the criminal justice system do not get the services they need. If it’s not done by video, if it’s not done by distance learning, it’s probably not going to be done at all. I think people need to understand that, out of everybody out there who has a substance abuse problem when they come in the program probation or when they come in the mainstream corrections, the data that I’m looking at is that only a small minority of those individuals get substance abuse treatment or substance abuse education. Some people are suggesting if it’s not done by video it’s not going to get done.

Joe: That’s certainly an approach that should be examined and exploited but what you’re describing there is an efficiency issue, if we can deliver these services in better, more efficiently, more inexpensively and so on. Certainly that needs to be examined. I think Brian is right. At the end of the day we need to evaluate is it truly better than nothing and if so how much better than nothing. These are things that shouldn’t impede agencies exploring these technologies but research is lagging. We’ll have to examine that and look at it and determine the effectiveness and whether it’s worth the investment.

The larger issue I think we need to talk about GPS and other technological tools to supervise offenders, is most technologies, other than the process type technologies, most supervision type technologies involve work. That’s a point that often people miss is that we just put folks on GPS and that makes it easier, more efficient. Well, that creates a lot of workload. That needs to be examined from the larger context of risk assessment, which is a common theme in the community corrections group as part of this panel. We need better tools to identify who needs what level of service and then targeted resources directed to those folks.

That gets to the larger issue is everyone within this criminal justice system need to be there and the folks that are within that criminal justice system already, do they need the same level of resources. Obviously the answer is no. We need better tools to differentiate who needs what type of intervention.

Leonard: Gentlemen, I want to reintroduce both of you. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re doing a show today on innovative use of corrections technology. Brian Jackson is the director of the Safety and Justice Program and a senior physical scientist at RAND. Joe Russo, back at our microphones, is a researcher at the University of Denver focusing on technological issues within the correctional sector. The document that we’re talking about is “Fostering Innovation in Community and Institutional Corrections: Identifying High Priority Technology and Other Needs in the U.S. Corrections Sector”. Want to give out the websites for both gentlemen and the document for RAND www.RAND.org. We’ll have the direct URL or the address to get you to that document but you can also find it by searching RAND’s website or simply Googling it. Joe is at the University of Denver, www.JustNet J-U-S-T-N-E-T .org O-R-G.

Gentlemen, to enter into this new era of corrections, whether it be mainstream corrections in a prison or whether it be a parole and probation agent who usually comes with a bachelors degree or higher, you’re talking about a fairly technologically sophisticated individual who can handle multiple technological platforms at the same time to supervise his or her community supervision population, or to run a safe and efficient prison system. We’re talking about a level of technology that we do not have now, correct?

Joe: It is in some respects the technology is already in place. The technology will grow and improve and that’s going to be continuous. I think that the point that you’re getting at, Leonard, is that correction is changing to a degree that there’s a large [inaudible 00:19:07] from specialization. If you go into a prison, a newer prison these days, almost everything is wired so the technical skills needed to operate a prison or run facilities within a prison, are much different than they were 20 years ago. That’s going to continue to change. More and more prisons are looking at allowing access to the internet for inmates as part of education reentry services. Almost every security system plugs in or is connected to a network in some way.

A lot of the same things are happening through the corrections whether it’s GPS or social media, monitoring, whatever the case might be. As society changes and becomes more technologically advanced, the supervision services have to keep pace and certainly the job is changing. On the positive side, with millennials and other generations coming into the workforce, they’re more ready and adaptable to that approach.

Leonard: To ask that person … Let’s just say going back to community corrections, and I don’t mean to keep harping on community corrections, but that’s where I’ve spent the last 11 years with Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency here in downtown Washington. To be able to analyze an individual, figure out through some algorithm as to whether or not this person is high risk, medium risk, or no risk, what that person’s needs are, what they’re not, figure out whether or not that person should be supervised at all or placed on the lowest level of supervision or the highest level of supervision, operate a GPS unit, video interface with that person on a fairly regular basis, that requires a certain sophistication. That requires a certain wherewithal and do we have that workforce now?

Brian: In all sectors we have that challenge as technology changes. Me working at a research environment, I use very different technologies and interface with my colleagues in a very different way than what’s happened 20 years ago, and that creates training challenges. Some of that is solved by, as Joe pointed out, the millennials coming in to the sector and bringing with them greater technological familiarity and a comfort level simply because they’ve used a lot of technology similar to this.

In many of the areas, in the discussions with our advisory panel as part of this work, is through the training implications of both technologies and how to use them and how to make decisions about acquiring them, came out as part of the discussion as a key element to thinking about innovation in corrections, whether that is training up individual practitioners to use the technology effectively, or whether that’s figuring out how to present information to leaders who are making decisions about technologies that they have to learn about as they’re making the assessment in procurement decisions.

A lot of this falls into an area of how do we produce that information in a way where the sector can use it effectively, since if we want innovation, part of that is arming the people, who are making the choices and who are using the technologies on a daily basis, with what they need to use it effectively. You can’t get good outcomes just by buying new technology and assuming that it will happen and work well if there’s an investment that needs to be made there to let it be adopted effectively by the organization and its members.

Leonard: Part of the document talks about the poor outcomes on key correctional measures of effectiveness, notably offender recidivism. Offender recidivism measured by … I can think of three historic documents and documents from other individuals and taking a look at individual research programs, is pretty daggone high in terms of recontact with the criminal justice system, rearrest. Generally the mantra has been within three years of two-thirds of rearrested and fifty percent re-incarcerated. You take a look at other reports and you get variations on those figures but in essence the figures are high. How does technology have an impact, have a bearing on improving the effectiveness in terms of offender outcomes?

Joe: Well, I’ll jump in. I think technology in the prison sector can be very useful and then is already being applied to support reentry. I mentioned earlier about agencies being more open to internet access if not complete, that which is not on the table yet, but at least access to internet content to help offenders develop their young vocational skills, education skills, make connections with potential employers and then in resources in the community. Between video visitation, video conferencing in general, giving offenders access to the community before they reach the community, I think technology can be leveraged to a great degree.

Leonard: RAND, interestingly enough, did an overview. Correct me if I’m wrong. I’m pretty daggone sure it was RAND. I think I saw it yesterday. Talking about correctional education in part of that document they suggested that the video delivery of services was as effective as in person. I may be overplaying my hand here but it was pretty encouraging in terms of what you can do through video delivery. Am I right or wrong?

Brian: Yes, that was certainly part of that study done by a number of my colleagues here at RAND who were looking both at the effectiveness overall of educational interventions and the very significant effect and cost effective effect that they have on reducing recidivism after release, but also development of technology in delivering those educational interventions. Again this comes down to resources, where it may be more costly to deliver education in person and be able to deliver it at a distance, whether that’s on a tablet based system or a video based system in a classroom, where the technology can become the force multiplier to let these services to reach more inmates, and as a result hopefully have a better effect for them as they leave to reintegrate into society, and hopefully find other things to do that do not lead them back into the correctional system.

Leonard: There are companies out there and I guess I shouldn’t mention the one company that I have in mind. I’m confronted as a person in the criminal justice system who’s been doing public affairs for the last 35 years. I’m always confronted with new technologies and I’m always confronted with a need to learn. There’s a company out there that provides technological overviews of equipment, of programs, of modalities that don’t assume that you have any prior knowledge of that technology at all. They walk you step by step, bit by bit, to the point where you feel pretty comfortable creating Final Cut Pro and creating a green screen movie in Final Cut Pro. This seems to be a powerful event in our lives in terms of the potential for delivering educational programs, vocational programs, maybe even mental health issues.

Joe: Well, absolutely. I mean often we talk about telemedicine as a way to deliver medical services but it’s established as well as a way to make contact and deliver services to inmates in prisons and even folks in the community. One of the things that came across during our research here was the needs of the rural agencies. Because of isolation, it’s not an efficiency issue in terms of using video to connect with their clientele. It’s not a resource issue. There is no other way to effectively connect with their clientele other than video and other technology approaches so it’s very important.

Leonard: Final three minutes of the program, we have a criminal justice system that is emerging in the technological arena but I don’t get the sense that we’re all that terribly sophisticated. I don’t get the sense that a lot of our agencies are run by people with tech backgrounds. How long will it take the criminal justice system to gear up, fund, train, implement a technological solution across the board for managing offenders, both in the community or managing people behind prison bars?

Brian: Well, certainly innovation across the entire system is a high bar. I mean in our criminal justice system the fact that we do this in a decentralized way means that we have answered to a lot of independent actors that are making their own decisions, that face their own financial constraints and their own legacy systems constraints. If you’re thinking about innovation across the board in the same way, it’ll be a long time, but the advantage that we have in that is that we have a lot of separate agencies that can do experiments and can try things and figure out what works. That provides a benefit to the other agencies that would come after them. On the one hand, thinking about uniform innovation, it will be a long time but what I’m encouraged by, particularly with the great ideas that came up in our advisory panels, is that we’ve got a lot of agencies out there that are trying new things and their experience can help lead the way for other agencies that come after.

Leonard: Yeah, but I’m suggesting that there’s a sense of … I don’t want to use the word panic but apprehension on the part of community corrections saying, “We need this stuff now.” If we’re going to deinstitutionalize, therefore rely more upon community supervision and you’re going to even increase the caseloads that we’re dealing with now, you’ve got to give us tools. I think that what I’m hearing is a need for speed.

Joe: There’s no doubt that there’s urgency but it’s a double edged sword. You don’t want to introduce technologies that haven’t been validated in the field or that potentially create an increased workload like GPS’s so it’s a balancing act. As Brian said there are agencies who are doing things piecemeal. It’s probably not the right term. Here and there they’re experimenting and some are having very good results.

Leonard: All right, Joe. You’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had Brian Jackson, the Director of safety and justice programs for RAND, Joe Russo, a researcher for the University of Denver today talking about an extraordinary document, “Fostering Innovation in Community and Institutional Corrections”. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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  1. aksindiblog says

    Joe: There’s no doubt that there’s urgency but it’s a double edged sword. You don’t want to introduce technologies that haven’t been validated in the field or that potentially create an increased workload like GPS’s so it’s a balancing act. As Brian said there are agencies who are doing things piecemeal. It’s probably not the right term. Here and there they’re experimenting and some are having very good results.

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