The American Probation and Parole Association just released a position paper about leveraging the use of smartphone applications to enhance community supervision. It is an important read especially in light of the current situations in which we are finding ourselves.

Throughout the paper, APPA points out several features and functions and different ways that smartphone applications can work. I wanted to take a moment to comment from the perspective of a provider of this technology, and also from the perspective of a subject matter expert that has been involved in designing web-based software technologies for nearly 20 years. Here are some key points to reinforce from the paper and some extra side information that sometimes gets lost in our industry.

  1. Use of smartphones, wearable technology and portable internet access is NOT going away, so we should embrace it. The paper cites a couple of sources that point to increasing use of smartphones. Even though the data is only one year old, a lot can happen in that time. More than 1.5 billion smartphones were sold worldwide last year and there are more than 230 million smartphone users in the US! If the recent #COVID19 situation has any type of take away for the community supervision arena, it should be that we need to be prepared to be more mobile friendly.
  2. The two main approaches pointed out in the paper have different pros and cons, but BYOD has the advantage. BYOD or “bring your own device,” in my opinion, has far more advantages than a vendor supplying the phone and here they are: 1) If clients are going to use another device to get around usage restrictions, they are going to do it no matter what. Why not embrace the use of their personal phone? 2) The Costs are a significant factor, not just something to be aware of. A vendor supplied smartphone can increase the cost as much as 1000%! 3) It is our experience that a client is far more reluctant to separate from their personal phone than one provided to them. If they want to not be tracked, or not communicate, they do not have to remove the battery or SIM card, they can simply walk away from the phone. Using their own device makes it less likely for them to cause themselves a poor user experience for other features they like to use. And by the way CourtFact has both a BYOD and a locked-down solution available, so these opinions are not based on availability of platform.
  3. Using bio-metrics to identify the person using the application is important, but not always a necessity. We will discuss certain feature/function further below, but the vast majority of uses of these applications have no bearing on properly identifying the client. A client can email you, text you, mail in a report, fake a sign-in sheet or any number of things that are traditional circumvention of obligations that we in the industry have just grown to accept. Verifying the client makes us feel good, makes it seem like we are doing more with less. The fact is, that these solutions are lower-risk level based, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you. CourtFact has three levels of client authentication from a simple PIN to a proprietary facial recognition process, so it covers the risk gamut, but realistically, these products are for low- to medium-risk, not high.
  4. Location monitoring and tracking are really nice features, but these applications are NOT a replacement for GPS monitoring. We recently responded to an RFP that wanted a smart phone to do exclusion zones, inclusion zones, 24/7 monitoring, etc. Who are we kidding? A smartphone application is a direct, targeted missile designed for one thing and one thing only: making communication and monitoring of general compliance more efficient with low- to medium-risk clients. Period. If we are that concerned about real-time location tracking then the client should be on GPS with a live call center. Let’s not complicate an excellent tool by making it something that it is not. Even though CourtFact does do periodic and constant tracking, it is not something we claim should be used as a determination of restricting clients’ liberties or freedoms.
  5. The most widely used features are the ones that courts and agencies have wanted for a long time. When I started in this industry coming from web-based software, I never put two and two together. I wish I had! I remember a private probation company learning about my background and asking me back in 2008 if I could design something that allowed them to collect reports and communicate with clients through a website. Had I done that, this would be a very different article. But in all reality, the features requested 12 years ago are the same as they are today. The most popular features are event reminders, remote reporting to replace call-in or mail-in reports and secure two-way communication. There are a number of other features like mass messaging and court/agency fee collection and payment reminders as well that rounds out a lot of application features. But simple to use communication tools are the most popular.
  6. Integration, data management and privacy round out the “fine print” of using a smartphone application. Let’s face it, if we had one software that did everything we wanted and needed, it would do no one thing great. There is a reason why there are different platforms and this is because certain core competencies are achieved by different types of companies. There is no one silver bullet in this industry and if there was, there would not be two dozen companies making similar products. The best we can hope for is ease of use, wide adoption and cost effectiveness. We get those three things by selecting different approaches to each part of what we do. Automating as much of the follow up we can is what reduces the need for absolute integration. Allowing court/agency staff to be able to work remotely, from any device reduces the need for central data management. And using the client’s own phone, having them sign a usage agreement and not restricting their access is what reduces the need to worry about privacy protections.

If you haven’t read the position paper, I highly recommend it. If you have not looked into using a smartphone application to help manage your client population, I highly recommend it. And if you are still of the opinion that—even in light of recent lock-downs and health scares—we should continue to do business as normal and not evolve, then I recommend you re-evaluate the importance of communication and compliance monitoring in community supervision programs.

Like I said earlier, there is no silver bullet to solve all, or even most, of our challenges we face in this industry. But, there are efficient, low-cost tools that can genuinely revolutionize how we go about engaging with low- to medium- risk populations. Going mobile might be the best tool in our bag for the foreseeable future. We should embrace the use of personal technology—especially when the cost to do it is so extremely low.