N.Y.C. Probation Officers To Get High-Tech Helper

Electronic kiosks will free officers to focus on high-risk cases

It's not quite automated criminal justice - but it's close.

Beginning next month, as part of a cutting-edge - and controversial - new program, some New York City criminals serving probation will no longer have to dutifully check in with their probation officers. Instead, they will place their palms on a electronic kiosk, similar to an ATM, and answer questions that flash on the screen.

This bold reform is designed to lighten probation officers' caseloads, enabling them to focus on probationers who are more likely to return to a life of crime.

Other cities are taking similar steps to automate their probation systems. In Denver and Seattle, for instance, offenders call a 900-number to report in. Duluth, Minn., was the first US city to install electronic kiosks for some of its probationers. But New York City is embarking on the biggest experiment of its kind. It is being watched closely as social service agencies around the country struggle with swelling probation caseloads and shrinking budgets.

"All over, jurisdictions are looking at New York and saying, 'This is what we want to do,'" says Peter Jones, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The electronic kiosks will identify probationers by the shape of their hands, then prompt them to press "yes" or "no" to certain questions: Have they moved? Been arrested again? Do they need to see a probation officer?

Then, from the department of probation's headquarters, an officer logging into the system will be able to retrieve the answers from a central database with a click of a mouse.

Eventually about 30,000 "low-risk" probationers - a third of New York City's total - will report to one of the 15 kiosks scheduled to be installed in probation department offices over the next few years. "Low-risk" probationers will likely include those convicted of petty theft and property crimes, and those nearing the end of their probation sentences.

Because the probation system is so overburdened, many low-risk offenders' contact with a probation officer is already limited to filling out a questionnaire once a month. Electronic kiosks are expected to save the time and money now spent compiling monthly reports.

Focus on youth offenders

The $850,000 electronic kiosk project is the final piece of a larger effort to restructure New York's probation system. Faced with a $3.3 million funding cut in 1992, former probation commissioner Michael Jacobson had his department design a system that sorts offenders according to risk and then focuses on high-risk and younger offenders. (Research shows that youth offenders are the most likely to re-offend and the most receptive to intervention.)

New York's reform program has already yielded positive results, say some observers. Until recently, probation officer Gene Bogans spent her days on the numerous administrative details required to track her 250-offender caseload, a mixed bag of middle-aged, white-collar criminals and violent youths.

Now, the Manhattan probation officer meets with small groups of violent youths twice a week and with their families when possible. "We go to funerals, we go to their graduations," Ms. Bogans says. "But it can be done only when you have 30 cases as opposed to 200."

A matter of survival

Of the 3.6 million people going through America's correctional system, three-quarters are on probation. Yet probation receives only 12 percent of federal correction monies. With that trend likely to worsen - more people are going to jails and more money is needed to fund prison beds - concentrating on higher risk offenders is becoming a matter of survival.

"New York City had no choice, it had to do something like that," says Todd Clear, associate dean of the school of criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a participant in the city's restructuring efforts. "No one wants probationers reporting to kiosks, but the alternative was even more unthinkable - a system in which nobody receives quality service."

But detractors fear that reporting to kiosks fails to strengthen the "punishment" element of probation, an element they feel is desperately lacking already.

They would rather offenders serve shorter probation sentences - which would help ease the strain on overburdened caseworkers - while holding probationers more accountable for their crimes. For example, they'd like to see probationers do community service or pay for their victims' medical expenses.

"If all you do is keep track of where people are, what they do, if they have a job, then technology can assist us in doing that," says Walter Dickey, Wisconsin's former corrections secretary. "But if people are such a low risk and there is no correctional purpose served in having them report, we ought to discharge them [from the correctional system]."

"For probation to work, we need to replace the office visits with something of substance," says Andrew Klein, chief probation officer in Quincy, Mass.

Kay Pranis, a restorative justice planner for Minnesota, agrees: "Anybody who offends somebody should pay back to the person he's offended through a system that is quick, efficient, and allows people to move on."

But allowing people to leave probation earlier may not be politically palatable. "Imagine yourself a New York City judge who allows a probationer to be out early and the probationer gets in trouble again," says Dr. Clear. "You are looking for a certainty of a New York City election disaster."

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