Justice Innovation Center
Probation officers are a mobile workforce whose responsibilities take them into institutional correction facilities, court houses, and the community. They need secure access to parolee data in the field. Nearly all probation agencies use some type of case management system (CMS)—a software system for maintaining a database of all client information. Often, an agency’s CMS does not enable remote data access, because it is not web-based, is not accessible through a web interface, or it lacks an smart phone or tablet application (“app”) allowing data access through a mobile device. Data security concerns also complicate remote data access.
To support probation officers in the field, a CMS must allow remote data access via web browser or smartphone/tablet apps and ensure data security. Officers need a laptop, tablet or smartphone with access to their agency’s CMS, and data connectivity (e.g., cellular, Wi-Fi, or satellite).
Cass County covers 6,600 square miles in central Minnesota and the state’s third largest lake lies in the north central part of the county. The county’s probation officers spend a lot of time traveling between clients. To implement evidence-based practices in the field of probation, such as completing valid risk assessments through motivational interviewing, revising case plans as goals and objectives are met and new ones established, and adhering to contact standards including home and employment visits, the county’s probation officers needed to become more mobile and accessible. In 2014, Cass County Probation began implementing mobile access to client data using smartphones and tablets. The mobile access enables probation officers to be more flexible and responsive as client issues arise giving them access the data they need to respond to an immediate client need without driving to the nearest probation office.
Technology and operations solutions
Minnesota implemented a statewide criminal justice database—the Court Services Tracking System (CSTS)— in 1990, designed to store and make data accessible by criminal justice partners across the state. Now, law enforcement, jails, juvenile detention centers, and prisons have access to data in the system. Cass County began using CSTS around 1993, and the probation department uploads all of its client data into the database. CSTS is both comprehensive (containing the department’s past and current data) and user friendly. New probation officers receive training on the system via webinars and from managers and system administrators.
In 2014, Cass County Probation started the process of providing its officers with remote access to CSTS records. Officers use Microsoft Surface Pro tablets and iPhones to access CSTS remotely. Probation officers did not require training on the mobile technologies; they were already familiar with them.
Both mobile systems enable users to access the system via Wi-Fi in office spaces around the county and in their homes, and the tablets connect to docking stations for desktop-like functionality in the office or home.
When in the field, the probation offices connect to the main server via a Wi-Fi hotspot or cellular service to access the database. When in transit, officers can use their iPhone to create a hotspot, providing web access and allowing data entry and retrieval. As long as they have Internet access, probation officers have the full use of the system as if they were sitting in their office in front of a desktop computer. In the intermittent areas with poor or no cell coverage, probation officers can also access any required data and documents prior to entering areas with poor or no cellular service and upload data updates when they have connectivity again.
Policies covering the use of CSTS and mobile access have been developed and modified over the years. Cass County Probation developed a communications policy for all forms of communication (email, text, social media, etc.) when they started using tablets—as a government entity, any data communicated is subject to disclosure with or without a court order.
Outcomes and advice
These technologies have changed the way Cass County probation officers work, and go hand-in-hand with the department’s efforts to embrace a paperless work environment: around 2011, Cass County Probation undertook the monumental endeavor of scanning and then destroying some 50 years’ worth of old files. The probation department sees these technologies as means of communicating and performing all the tasks typically done with paper documents. Prior to CSTS, communication with criminal justice partners was done via letters and phone calls. Now, data are entered into CSTS daily and are instantly available to other users, reducing any lag time in data access.
Probation officers have high caseloads. Instead of spending time of searching for data or paper documents and preparing hard copies of data before going into the field, probation officers have more time to engage with their clients, particularly those deemed moderate to high risk. Being mobile enables probation officers to be more responsive to their clients’ risks, needs, and changing situations.
Based on their positive experience with a mobile-accessible CSTS, tablets, and smartphones, Cass County Probation encourages others in the community corrections field to fully embrace paperless and mobile technologies to improve department functioning, especially among small, rural, and border agencies.
For further information: James Schneider, Cass County Probation Department, firstname.lastname@example.org