Automated reporting brings order to U.S. Court's pretrial services

Life could soon get a little easier for pretrial services officers who work at federal district courts across the nation as a result of an information technology system that federal court officials in southern California have developed.

Pretrial services officers play a crucial role in the federal court system, which encompasses 94 districts nationwide. Their primary mission is to investigate the background of defendants and offenders, and their reports help judges determine whether a defendant should be detained or released under supervision. It’s the officers’ job to identify defendants who are likely to fail to appear at court hearings or present a danger to society.

If the court releases defendants, pretrial officers are responsible for supervising them until their cases are decided, often providing referrals for counseling, mental-health treatment, drug testing, education and employment services.

At the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, pretrial services officials have implemented a kiosk-based reporting system to streamline services for defendants and help officers better do their jobs, said George Walker, chief pretrial services officer for the central district, which has been at the forefront in automating the processes and procedures of case officers and defendants. The district’s probation office also uses the system to monitor offenders and parolees, he added.

“The technology has helped a lot,” he said. “We’re working toward streamlining things.”

U.S. courts haven’t always been quick to adopt new technologies, although that is starting to change, as courts at various levels implement new IT systems.

Defendants use the kiosks, which are placed in court buildings and run on a local-area network, to report their status and furnish information each month while they are under supervision. The kiosks resemble an ATM machine. Before face-to-face meetings with pretrial officers, defendants go to a kiosk, sign on using fingerprint biometrics to authenticate their identity, and access their information from a database in a case management system called the Probation Automated Case Tracking System.

Defendants then complete automated reporting forms via a touch-screen system that uploads their responses to a PACTS chronological notes database. Officers can then summon the updated information from the database in advance of a meeting.

The kiosk system, launched three years ago as a pilot program, streamlines what was previously an onerous and time-consuming manual process. “The offender would sit out in the waiting room, fill out the monthly supervision report and then hand that to the officer, who would look it over, make some notes and then” type the information into the PACTS system, Walker said. “By doing the kiosk, we’ve been able to do away with a boatload of paper [and] prepare officers for their meetings with offenders.”

In effect, the kiosk system moves the burden of submitting standard reporting information from the officer to the defendant. “Now, every [defendant or offender in the central district] who reports into an office, reports to a kiosk,” Walker said. “That’s their first stop.”

The kiosk system is used by more than 1,000 defendants in courthouses in the California central district and in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, where the system also was tested. In-house IT specialists from both districts teamed to develop the system under a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Courts’ administrative office in Washington. The team used input from officers, managers and even a few defendants in building the system.

Given the success so far of the kiosk system, the relatively small initial investment to build an application for national use has proven to be a major boon. “We really developed this kiosk system on a shoestring budget,” Walker said.

U.S. Court officials now plan to expand the use of kiosks for pretrial services and probation officers in other U.S. court districts across the country — depending to some extent on the availability of funding — beginning in fiscal 2010, Walker said. “With 120 offices and some of those offices having a number of smaller offices situated in different places, there could be as many as 300 or 400 or more kiosks within the next couple of years,” he said.

Officials also are considering extending the kiosk system to locations other than courthouses, such as police substations or other district offices, Walker said. “You could have [kiosks in those locations so] people wouldn’t have to report into the main office to give their status,” he said. If a case officer is on vacation, for example, defendants could file their monthly reports from an alternative kiosk instead of having to go to a courthouse kiosk, he said.

Although primarily focused on extending use of the national kiosks, pretrial officials also want to improve the reporting system beyond the kiosk format. One is the development of a Web reporting system that would let defendants or offenders submit information from any Internet-connected computer, though officials are fully cognizant of the security concerns that would present, Walker said. “That will be another way of getting people to report,” he said. “But it’s for people who are very, very low risk,” he said.

Officials also are building an interactive telephone reporting system based on secure voice recognition. Both the Web and telephone reporting systems are targeted for implementation in fiscal 2010, Walker said.

One of the main hurdles in deploying technologies to automate pretrial business processes has been resistance from workers who are used to doing things the old way, Walker said. But as older officers retire and technology-savvy younger officers come aboard, introducing new technologies gets easier, he said.

The central district has been a breeding ground for U.S. Court information management technologies, such as the kiosks, since Walker arrived in 2000 from the Indiana state and county probation system, where he championed automation. “When I came into the federal system, it was just ripe for [adding new] technology and streamlining" business processes, he said. “It was largely paper-based. It was a fantastic opportunity for me, as a lover of technology, to try to help [the agency] not replace what humans do but be more efficient and more organized.”

Before creating the kiosks, IT specialists at the central district developed an electronic case file system that automated paper pretrial and probation services forms and provided the basis for the national case management system now in use, Walker said.

The overall vision of pretrial services officials is to establish an integrated, enterprisewide information system. In the meantime, they continue to tweak and upgrade their systems. For example, they recently expanded access to the case management system and other databases to BlackBerry devices. “What’s really exciting is that our officers can access the case management system on their BlackBerrys in real time and [access] everything else that we use — not just the case management system,” he said. “We can run records checks using the FBI files and [motor vehicles department] checks on our BlackBerrys.”

In January, the central district hosted a national IT conference for pretrial services and probation officers to explore the use of innovative technologies. Officials are planning to stage another conference in 2011 to coincide with the deployment of a new version of PACTS, Walker said.

“Our thing here in our district is the desire to get everybody on the same sheet of music,” he said.

About the Author

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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