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New Contact System Makes Sure Offenders Are Never Out of Reach

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Nearly 158,000 offenders and defendants are under supervision in the federal probation and pretrial system. For officers, maintaining contact with each client is essential.

But what happens when a natural disaster, such as Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, disrupts the normal lines of communication and closes offices? How do offenders know where to report? How do officers reach out when entire communities are displaced?

Three districts currently are piloting a web-based Client Electronic Notification System (CENS) that will help officers maintain that contact and safeguard the community.

“It helps to provide clear instructions to offenders so that they can report during times of emergency and CENS’ biggest advantage for us, in a hurricane-prone area, is the emergency broadcasting network style of communication,” said Chief Probation Officer Kito J. Bess, who works out of New Orleans, in the Eastern District of Louisiana. “Maybe two of our three district offices are closed. We can send out mass broadcasts to offenders telling which office to report to, or that our offices are closed. Offenders still have an obligation to report— even if it’s reporting to a probation office in another district.”

CENS pulls phone numbers and email addresses from the Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS) database, and delivers a message by voice or email to individuals, groups, or entire caseloads. The officer sending the notification receives a receipt the message was delivered. Messages can be sent at specific times and scheduled to repeat.

“After Katrina, we saw a need for this type of emergency notification system,” said Jay Whetzel in the Administrative Office, Probation and Pretrial Services Office, who is helping to roll out CENS to the courts. “Chief Probation and Pretrial Services Officers in districts experiencing tornadoes and flooding were asking for it too. Super Storm Sandy solidified the need for a system.”

Lack of funding side-lined CENS temporarily, but money finally was identified for testing and the pilot was rolled out in the Middle District of Florida, the Eastern District of Louisiana, and the District of New Jersey in September 2013.

Deputy Chief Probation Officer Tom Miller in the District of New Jersey knew CENS could be used in a disaster; but his officers quickly took CENS to a different level.

“They started using CENS for just about anything you could think of,” said Miller. Funding and staffing shortages had cut down on the random phoning of offenders to notify them when they’d be tested for drugs. Now, officers used CENS to pick five or 10 people under supervision and notify them at 11:00 the night before that the officer would be in the field the next day to collect a urine sample.

Officers running the district’s cognitive behavioral groups used CENS to notify participants of the weekly sessions, or as a reminder what work needed to be prepared for the next group session.

“I think the officers really appreciate how much CENS has helped to eliminate some of the phone calls and text messaging they needed to do. You just send one message to the whole group and you’re good to go,” said Miller.

Both Bess and Miller say their districts would use CENS to notify offenders of job fairs. “If we know there’s a job fair on a particular day,” said Bess, “we can easily send a mass communication with the details for those people in our offender population who are unemployed. It’s another form of communication we can use to help offenders in the pursuit of employment. Otherwise, our probation officers try to phone them during work hours. Without CENS, we’d still make the calls. But using the technology helps us do a better job.”

“There are lots of ways we can use it,” Miller agrees. “A few weeks ago, our Patterson, New Jersey office lost power and one of the officers notified the offenders he supervises by CENS, ‘just to let you know, if you need me, contact me by cell phone only, the office is closed.’ If we’d had this in place prior to Sandy, I think it would have been a lot easier to reach out to as many people as we needed to.”

If all goes well, CENS could be in every Probation and Pretrial Services Office by summer 2014.