That is the second problem these apps are trying to fix: officers are overloaded. Statistics are hard to come by because probation and parole are handled by states and counties. The American Probation and Parole Association recommends a ratio of 200 low-risk parolees to one officer. Officers have complained of overload, however. In Mississippi, officers claimed they faced caseloads of around 300 probationers and parolees. A bill to limit the number to 100 failed this year. Arnett argues that the system is built to make recidivism the fault of officers and parolees.
Tracktech, another vendor, pairs its messaging and automation software with more enforcement capabilities (location tracking and geo-fencing alerts, for example) and a case management dashboard for supervisors. It is essentially a ranking system. If an officer has 100 parolees to supervise, for example, the apps can offer an “early warning” system of cases that need attention.
“It’s sort of a red-yellow-green triage based on what’s happened in the last reporting period,” explains Tracktech CEO, Michael Hirschman. Tracktech integrates with parole systems to rank and flag parolees. A parolee may be labeled red, or high risk, for going near an ex who’s filed a restraining order. Yellow would be more for someone missing or late to an appointment with a reasonable excuse.
But this leads to the dilemma that concerns Arnett, where constant tracking creates the need to constantly ask permission from supervisors. James Kilgore, an activist and author who spent 6 ½ years in prison, says this need to constantly update and remain in touch with a supervisor is invasive. The pressure to remain accessible makes it harder to form any real connection with the officer tasked with helping them re-enter society.
“The criminal legal system is looking for cheap ways to do their job instead of recognizing, first of all, that punitive supervision does not work,” he says. “It makes people more likely to hide their real feelings, knowing that they might be punished for it.”
Kilgore leads a re-entry program in Illinois, and says money spent on remote supervision is a misuse of funds. Instead, he suggests states provide people with social workers, therapy, and access to housing.
“I’m dealing with individuals on a daily basis who are navigating the hurdles to reintegrate into the local community,” he begins. “These people do not need technology. They don’t need tracking. They don’t need reminders. They need human beings and access to resources. And those are all more expensive than cell phone apps.”
Noting the lack of resources to fund robust, person-to-person support, one team of researchers is exploring an approach combining technology and cognitive behavioral therapy. Last year, the National Institute of Justice granted $1.9 million to the researchers, from Florida State University, Purdue, and the University of Alabama.
The group wants to create what Carrie Pettus-Davis, an FSU professor and one of the project’s leads, calls a “game of life app,” that combines remote monitoring, artificial intelligence, and biometric data from users.
“One of the really critical intervention techniques for people in recovery is to help them tune in to the biological factors that lead to relapse,” Pettus-Davis says.
The researchers plan an app that will measure a person’s heart rate and breathing rate. When those increase, that can signal stress, such as a temptation to use drugs or alcohol. The user may not know their own triggers and the app could, in theory, notice them and help build better habits.
“What substance abuse researchers have found out is that you can prompt using applications,” she says. “You can prompt them, then send the message, ‘You’re triggered, call mom.’” She cites a client who struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. During support therapy, the man, a heavy smoker, mentioned that the sound of his lighter clicking often triggered cravings for the drug. By focusing on his smoking habit, he made strides in curbing his addiction.