State unveils probation kiosks
Danny Mitchell never really likes checking in with his probation agent.
But thanks to a new computerized kiosk system, the 32-year-old Pasadena resident at least doesn't have to spend very long doing it any more.
"This is perfect. I haven't been here five minutes and I'm already done" Mitchell said yesterday afternoon as he walked out of the Annapolis District Courthouse. Four years ago, it could have taken more than an hour for him to report to his agent, he said.
"By far, this is better," said Mitchell, who in 2004 was convicted of unlawful use of a motor vehicle.
The state's Department of Parole and Probation unveiled the kiosk system yesterday at the Annapolis District Courthouse. The kiosks, which were installed last year in the department's 44 field offices across the state, allow offenders to occasionally check in with their probation agents without a face-to-face appointment.
While praised by small-time offenders like Mitchell as a convenient way to keep the state apprised of their address, the kiosks were pitched yesterday as a way to allow probation agents to spend more time dealing with "high-risk" offenders.
"The hope here is both agents and offenders can save time," said Patricia Vale, acting director of the Department of Parole and Probation.
The kiosks are little more than desktop computers with touch-screen monitors and a handprint reader on which an offender places his hand to confirm his or her identity.
Then, following written prompts that can be displayed in English or Spanish, the offender types in a seven-digit identification code and answers personal questions: Have you been arrested since your last visit? Have you changed your address? Do you want to change your emergency contact? Did you make your last restitution payment?
If an offender types in false answers and his probation agent finds out, he could be punished by a judge.
The system, the installation of which was funded by nearly $440,000 in federal grants, randomly orders some offenders to submit to drug tests. It also allows probation agents to send messages to individual offenders.
At the end of the process, the kiosk prints out a receipt confirming that the offender checked in and notifying him of his next appointment.
Only low-risk offenders - primarily those convicted of traffic and misdemeanor offenses who have proven they can stay out of trouble while on probation - are allowed to use the new kiosks as their primary method of checking in with their agent.
Vale estimated that about 10 percent of the 65,473 people on supervised probation last month in Maryland would qualify.
The kiosks will never replace one-on-one meetings between agents and high-risk offenders, officials said.
"If an offender is having issues, we aren't just going to throw them to the kiosks," said Shaun Rutherford, supervisor of the Anne Arundel County field office.
"By and large, this is a supplement. Most people will be checking in more," added Vale.
The new kiosk system, which uses free software developed by the state of New York, is the department's second foray into computerized monitoring of offenders.
In 2007, the state contracted with a private company to place three kiosks in locations around the state - including one at the Jennifer Road Detention Center.
The old kiosks, unlike the new ones, did not automatically make notations on an offender's record. The old system, which was dismantled last year, cost $115,000 a year, officials said.
The state employs 667 probation agents and is authorized to hire another 58. Each agent supervises about 120 offenders, Vale said.
Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the vacancies aren't from budget cuts or hiring freezes. He said the department is battling frequent turnover and that a class of 49 new agents is expected to graduate in the next couple of weeks.
The department is actually authorized to employ four more agents this year than in fiscal 2007, according to state numbers.
Judges and criminology professors contacted yesterday by The Capital gave the new kiosks high marks.
While Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Hackner would like agents to have more contact with offenders, he knows that is not possible on current budgets.
"As judges, we recognize the Department of Parole and Probation is going to exercise some discretion," said Hackner, who oversees much of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court's criminal docket.
He called the kiosks "better than not having someone come in, but not as good as the personal interaction one would get from an actual meeting."
Kiminori Nakamura, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, went on to say the kiosks can actually help an offender make the transition from prison to the real world. He said studies have shown that constant meetings between probation agents and low-risk offenders have little or no benefit.
"Meetings can be disruptive to … (the offenders') lifestyles," said Nakamura, explaining that meetings can damage their standing at work and distract them from life goals. "Most of the time, they are doing fine by themselves."