It seems like there really is an app for everything these days. In fact, there are even apps for those on probation, parole and pretrial release. Some researchers are hoping these technologies can one day be used to help past offenders who have been released to recognize and prevent situations that caused them to commit crimes in the first place. Of current apps, some strive to make it easier for people to get in touch with their probation and parole officers. But some of these technologies are designed to monitor those who have been released, similar to ankle bracelets, and some of these apps can be so invasive that they make life hell for those who must rely on them.
Competing Apps for Varied Purposes
Three of the top apps for those on probation and parole are The Guardian, Tracktech and Uptrust.Overall these programs are designed to help parole and probation officers keep up on their massive caseloads, but each one operates in a different manner, with some trying to make communication easier and others providing an unprecedented level of monitoring of those who have been released from prison.
Depending on the program, the apps may help people talk to their case officers on text or video chat. GPS tracking systems can ensure a parolee is on a regular schedule, is attending work and even if he visits somewhere off limits such as a bar or gun shop.
Regardless of the app in question, one common problem for those who use these services is money. If a person on supervised release can’t afford to buy a cell phone and then can’t afford the monthly cost of the app (The Guardian costs $90 a month), that alone could result in a violation of their release.
Technical Glitches that Can Ruin Lives
Perhaps the most problematic and notorious of these monitoring programs is The Guardian system. This highly invasive program is supposed to randomly ask participants to check in with the app and to track their locations. Unfortunately, the device has been known to ask people to check in as often as once every ten minutes day and night, causing users to lose sleep and even lose their jobs. If a phone’s battery has died, this alone could result in a probation violation with this system.
The tracking system is notoriously buggy, notifying parole officers that the user has traveled outside of areas they are permitted to visit -even when the parolee has been in bed all night. Just as problematic, the system’s ability to track biometric data such as voice or facial recognition is also glitchy with some users reporting that it fails at least half of the time. Disturbingly, the app also requests full access to the user’s device data, including the ability to record phone conversations although there is no evidence this actually occurs.
At least 10 cities have invested in the Guardian technology. This is particularly problematic as it will not only result in many people wrongfully being sent back behind bars, but, in the process, making things harder for parole and probation officers who are supposed to use the technology to help clients reintegrate into the world.
Not all programs are as problematic as The Guardian. Tracktech and Uptrust are more reliable. Tracktech does still monitor those on release using GPS technology, but it also offers case monitoring for officers and messaging capabilities to help case managers to get in touch with those they are supervising. Perhaps most intriguing, the system ranks the risk factors of parolees to determine how likely they are to reoffend based on information in the app. If a user goes by the house of someone who has a restraining order against them, for example, they will get a red flag and if they miss an appointment, they may get a yellow flag.
In theory this could help free up case managers to focus on those most likely to break the terms of their release agreement, but technologies like these have been known to wrongly flag people of color and low income users more frequently as they are more likely to live in urbanized areas where it is harder to avoid off-limits destinations.
While originally intended to monitor users with GPS tracking, Uptrust no longer tracks user locations at all. Instead, Uptrust simply makes it so parolees and their case officers can communicate more easily, offering automated reminders, direct messaging services and video chat. This improved connectivity could actually make things easier for those on probation, parole or pretrial release, especially during times like the coronavirus pandemic where actually seeing people in person can be problematic.
The Future of Probation and Parole Apps
Researchers from the Florida State University, Purdue, and the University of Alabama are working together on a project funded by the National Institute of Justice to create a monitoring app that will combine monitoring, AI and biometric data to provide users with tools to practice cognitive therapy. In theory, the programs will notify users that their heart or breathing rates have risen, which means they may experience stress. This could be particularly useful with those who have substance abuse issues to avoid situations that could make them likely to relapse.
Similar systems have already worked for those in recovery programs, but have yet to be applied to applications for the justice system. The idea in this case is to reduce the burden on probation and parole officers by allowing users the chance to treat their own psychological issues that may result in their recidivism.
Parole and Probation Apps in San Diego
As of right now, the only app San Diego has invested in for these purposes is the Virtual Integrated Mobile Office. This app is not for those on release, but instead is just designed to help case officers access the records of those in their care more quickly and efficiently. This is a useful tool that does not infringe on the privacy of those on parole, probation or pretrial release, but can speed up the ability of officers to do their job.
If you have any questions about these apps and how they could impact someone’s freedoms and rights, please call Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050.