Colorado Probation: Clearing the Clutter

Colorado is Clearing the Clutter from the Noise Kristen Hilkey (Colorado Probation Supervisor) and Ken Tomlinson (Colorado Probation Analyst) presented “Clearing the Clutter from the Noise” at the recent National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) conference in Indianapolis.

Kristen and Ken led the conference participants in a one and a half hour discussion on Colorado’s experiences in choosing and implementing a new automated reporting system for low‐risk offenders. The Colorado Judicial Department administers adult and juvenile probation within Colorado’s 22 judicial districts. This includes 23 probation departments with over 50 separate probation offices throughout the state. The Colorado Judicial Department currently supervises over 80,000 offenders in the community. Ken is an analyst on probation’s Research and Evaluation team.

This team recommends systems and policies for the 22 judicial districts to help the districts operate as efficiently as possible with state‐wide consistency. In October 2009, Fieldware started an automated telephone reporting pilot program in Colorado with five selected judicial districts. At the same time, another vendor was selected to operate a pilot with a different set of districts. The districts were selected so that the pilots could be evaluated in urban, suburban, and rural communities.

The Research and Evaluation team monitored both pilots and developed an RFP based upon the key learnings from each district’s experiences. Fieldware was selected as the winning proposal in October 2010 and the OffenderLink system has already been expanded to include 11 of the judicial districts with more in the planning stages. Ken discussed the pilot process and how the team was able to determine the requirements for a low‐risk, automated offender reporting system.

It was important to the department to have a flexible system that met the needs of each judicial district and helped to reduce the resources needed for low‐risk cases in order to allocate more resources to the higher risk offenders. The team considered kiosk, web, and other reporting methods but determined that an automated telephone reporting solution was the best choice to meet their requirements and provide the optimal level of client engagement. Colorado’s target is for a single officer to be able to monitor 350‐400 low‐risk offenders. Ken specifically referred to OffenderLink’s ability for the officer to “work in bulk” as a key factor in the officer’s ability to manage such a large caseload. “The ability to manage a large number of probationers via telephone reporting is a crucial piece in our overall management strategy.

We believe it imperative that we focus our efforts on high risk offenders. Being able to have a single officer oversee a caseload that traditionally would require two or more officers allows us to allocate more staff to higher risk caseloads.” Ken Tomlinson, Colorado Judicial Department, Research and Evaluation, Probation Analyst Kristen explained the lessons learned in the pilot from a local perspective. She found that it was very important to consolidate the cases to as few officers as possible to specialize in managing low‐risk offenders in the automated telephone reporting system. This allowed a few officers to be local “experts” in OffenderLink and policies regarding low‐risk offenders. “Government agencies are continually being asked to do more with less.

With that, utilizing technology just makes sense. Having the ability to effectively utilize our resources by increasing our focus on high‐risk offenders while at the same time maintaining accountability of low‐risk offenders is not only smart, it supports our goal of implementing evidence‐based practices.” Kristen Hilkey, Colorado Judicial Department, District 21, Probation Supervisor Kristen told the participants that her judicial district has experienced excellent offender compliance and has even been able to reach 100% compliance in May 2011 using OffenderLink.

Overall there have been no revocations based on program violations for offenders on telephone reporting. Ken stated that the participating districts have clearly seen improvements and in some instances have acquired as much as 45 minutes per offender per month in resources that can now be applied to higher risk caseloads. So a judicial district with 350 offenders on telephone reporting gets additional full‐time officers who are available to shift to higher‐risk caseloads.

From the Field with Ken Tomlinson

Anyone who has worked in the criminal justice field for any length of time has undoubtedly heard the phrase evidence based practices.  But what does that really mean and how is it applied in the day to day management of those under community supervision.  According to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) “The terms best practices, what works, and evidence-based practices (EBP) are often used interchangeably.”

However, what separates evidence based practices from the others is that it “implies that 1) one outcome is desired over others; 2) it is measurable; and 3) it is defined according to practical realities (i.e. public safety) rather than immeasurable moral or value-oriented standards.  Thus…EBP is more appropriate for scientific exploration within the human service disciplines.”  This means the activities we engage in with our populations must have some scientific foundation in producing a desired result.

Most of us would agree that the primary goal of community supervision is to reduce future criminal behavior.  Persons under our various supervision programs are there for a variety of reasons and come from a myriad of different backgrounds.  If, as stated above, our goal is to prevent recidivism we must apply some process to ascertain the likelihood of future criminal actions.  This then is the foundation for implementing evidence based practices.  As the NIC notes in their brief Implementing Evidence-Based Practices in Community Corrections:

The Principles of Effective Intervention, “complete system of on-going offender risk screening/triage and needs assessments” is crucial.  Our clients “must be assessed for risk before they are assessed for need.”  It is through this process that agencies can determine which group to focus resources on and “avoid the pitfalls of expending large amount of resources on low risk offenders.” Since EBP programs are based on scientific study that can be replicated, it stands to reason there are valid studies which support the above statements.

One such study of low risk offenders by Ahlman, Kurtz and Malvestuto in Philadelphia in 2010 compared re-arrest rates of 1,559 low risk probationers and/or parolees (defined as having a low risk of committing a new crime) placed in a traditional reporting program verses those placed in a low intensity caseload.  This was a randomized study meaning persons meeting the criteria of low risk were randomly assigned by a computer algorithm to either group (to eliminate possible evaluator bias). The standard reporting caseloads has a ratio of 150 cases per officer while the low intensity caseloads had a ratio of 400 cases per officer.  The standard reporting caseloads had office appointments each month as well as mandatory drug testing.  The low intensity caseloads had office contacts once every 6 months and drug testing only if ordered by the court.

The study measured two primary outcomes; absconder warrants and new arrests.   The results of the study showed there were no statistical differences in the re-arrest rates between the two groups.  For those who were arrested the time to arrest was also not different.  One curious finding however was that the standard reporting group had a 50% absconder rate than the low intensity group.  One of the most significant results of the study not related to arrest was the resource savings.  According to the study authors “reduced supervision of low risk offenders poses no significant threat to public safety.”   The results of this study support the policy of assessment based supervision and that reducing resources for low risk clients does not have an impact on recidivism.  Although not a scientific study, Fieldware clients using our Automated Telephone Reporting (ATR) program anecdotally report similar experiences with their low risk populations.  Ultimately, the more we rely on the science community to assist us in identifying good supervision strategies the more success we will have in our communities.