Remote Monitoring Systems in Community Corrections in Virginia

Jennifer Yopp
CNA

Overview and Challenge

The travel time spent conducting home, employment, or sobriety checks in rural areas means probation officers either have less contact with their clients or must have fewer clients—unless they can leverage remote monitoring technologies. These technologies can provide information on a client’s whereabouts at any time of day and adherence to certain conditions of probation, such as whether s/he is drinking alcohol. When technology is used to monitor clients’ daily activities, probation officers can focus on urgent needs, such as responding to system alerts; focus on other aspects of case management, such as reviewing and revising case plans and updating risk assessments; and manage a large caseload more effectively. 

Blue Ridge Court Services (BRCS), which serves seven localities in the central Shenandoah Valley, monitors clients sentenced to probation. The organization has 13 probation and pretrial officers to handle approximately 2,000 annual clients, who are either awaiting trial or on probation. BRCS has used remote monitoring technology on an ad hoc basis since the late 1990s; it was started by a judge who originally implemented it for cases where probationers had medical issues that made reporting in person difficult, or for those who had proven capable of compliance with remote monitoring.

After an assessment of its initial, limited application of remote monitoring, BRCS decided to expand its use of the technology, adding different types of remote monitoring and supervising more clients with remote technology. Today, about 4 percent of its clients (about 70 or 80 of 2000) are supervised with some form of remote monitoring. As in most probation agencies that use these technologies, probationers are charged a fee for using the equipment; these fees fully fund the program.

Technology and operations solutions

Blue Ridge Court Services uses several remote monitoring systems depending on a client’s history and medical needs and the offense for which s/he is on probation. The technology providers typically have a monitoring center that reviews incoming data, confirms the client’s identity, and issues alerts to BRCS for various behaviors, such as consuming alcohol or going to an off-limits location. Some of the technologies in use by BRCS include: 

  • GPS-enabled ankle bracelets: The client wears an ankle bracelet equipped with GPS to monitor location by time of day. If a client violates the location restrictions, the system sends text and email alerts to the probation/pretrial officer. This technology is used for clients on home confinement who are allowed to work, attend rehabilitation programs, or fulfill family responsibilities. Also, GPS technology allows officers to see how fast a client is driving or whether s/he stops off at a convenience store on the way home.

  • Remote mobile alcohol monitoring: BRCS uses a device called Real-time Alcohol Detection And Recognition (RADAR). This alcohol detection device is about the size of a cell phone and randomly selects certain times throughout the day to check for alcohol use.

    As part of the enrollment process, the client provides a series of breath samples in order to produce a breath print, much the same as a fingerprint, to verify that the breathalyzer tests are in fact being provided by the person under supervision. The client is required to carry this device 24 hours per day; when it buzzes, the client must provide a breathalyzer test through the device. The device tracks location using GPS, so it knows exactly where a client takes a breathalyzer test. 

    BRCS staff receive instant reports on these tests in order to ensure a participant is complying with the court’s directives. RADAR participants can live relatively normal lives while at the same time complying with the court’s directives to abstain from alcohol.
  • In-home alcohol monitoring: These systems have a breath tester and a high-resolution camera and are used for home confinement. During set-up, the client blows into the test straw and the camera captures a high-resolution image. The unit buzzes randomly multiple times a day, and the client blows into the machine.  An image is taken of the client for each test. The picture is compared digitally and manually to the one on file to ensure compliance. If the images do not align or the client tests positive for alcohol, the system sends text and email notifications to the probation officer. Otherwise, the results are compiled into a data log and emailed to the probation officer on a regular schedule. 

  • Voice recognition monitoring: This system calls a client’s home phone at times that the individual is required to be at home to verify that the client is there. Before beginning monitoring, the client repeats a sequence of letters and numbers for the system, establishing a voice profile. During monitoring, the system randomly calls the client on a home phone or landline up to 12 times a day and prompts the client to repeat an alphanumeric sequence. If the client does not respond, repeats the sequence incorrectly, or the voice prints fail to match, then the system sends text and email alerts to the probation officer. The system can be set to only call at times when the client is required to be at home, and, due to false negatives when a client is woken up, the system does call not clients during the night. This technology is used with low risk defendants.

Over the years, BRCS has amended its policies to accommodate the new technologies and the court staff has welcomed the additions. Having these monitoring options gives judges and prosecutors unobtrusive, specific and accurate technologies that provide alternatives to incarceration, reducing incarceration rates and allowing some clients to maintain a job, school, or parenting duties.

Outcomes and advice

BRCS’ experience with these technologies has made it a go-to agency for difficult cases across the state, because the agency’s technology allows its officers to provide remote monitoring for clients outside of their region. Neighboring jurisdictions occasionally refer cases to BRCS for remote monitoring. The probation officers enjoy working with these high-tech monitoring systems and being known as experts in the state.

The greatest challenge with these technologies is the learning curve—for both staff and clients. Despite the increasing capability and affordability of these technologies, using the latest technology means that probations officers and clients are often the first to encounter certain issues with the technology, and the first to work through them. The issues they report, however, are usually minor. For example, to use the RADAR portable alcohol unit, participants need to learn how to purse their lips to deliver the right volume of breath and how to allow the unit to sense their pulse.

Dave Pastors, BRCS Director, says that although these issues can be irritating and a hassle, they are not a fatal blow to the program. The technical support offered by the technology vendors has, in his experience, addressed any issues that have arisen, and the probation officers have a good relationship with the providers. The technology vendors also offer training and customer support to users.

Technology challenges may cause agencies to be reluctant to get started with remote monitoring but for BRCS, the benefits of having these technologies available for their clients are greater than the challenges of working through technical problems. To agencies considering implementing remote monitoring, Pastors recommends partnering or consulting with an agency that has been using these technologies for a while to leverage knowledge about best practices and lessons learned.

For further information: Dave Pastors, Blue Ridge Court Services, pastorsdt@ci.staunton.va.us