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:
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, firstname.lastname@example.org