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App aims to increase effectiveness, ease of probation process

Posted: August 9, 2017 - 1:15am
President and CEO of CSRA Probation Services Mike Popplewell demonstrates his company’s first Community Supervision smartphone app that gives low-level misdemeanor probationers the opportunity to self-report, saving them and officials time and expense.

A new app is revolutionizing the self-reporting realm of probation services.

CSRA Probation Services President and CEO Mike Popplewell has launched the Community Supervision app that he says is the latest in technological reform throughout the criminal justice system.

"The gist of criminal justice reform is to help offenders succeed and try to take away as many barriers to success as possible," Popplewell said. "And a smartphone app helps to take away several barriers."

Popplewell said the app was rolled out about eight months ago and remains in testing phases in several offices throughout the state, including Columbia County, Grovetown and Harlem.

Before probationers are signed up to use the app, they are taken through orientation and training on the app and complete a test run to ensure they are comfortable with it.

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Probationers can use the app to self-report and pay any fines and fees, all on their smartphone or tablet.

Probationers first log in by answering a series of yes or no questions inquiring about any changes of address, new arrests, if they've made their payment, and if they need to speak with a probation officer.

Next, probationers are asked to repeat a specific phrase that is recorded by the app.

Once the probationer has confirmed the answers they have selected, they submit they have officially completed the self-reporting process.

The app also allows probationers options for making online payments to satisfy any monthly or court-mandated fees. The app also allows probation officers to send text alerts reminding probationers about upcoming appointments and text alerts if a meeting has been missed, followed by a reminder to contact their probation officers.

The probation officers can see all of the answers to the offenders' questions and even a map showing where they reported in.

Popplewell's company only serves low-level misdemeanor offenders, and the app is a condition of probation set by each judge.

"A lot of ... low-need, low-risk offenders just need to check in once a month with a probation officer, just so we can keep up with them," Popplewell said. "We can provide that level of accountability that court is requiring them to submit to."

The app eliminates the barrier of not being able to physically report to the probation officer, which Popplewell said is the main reason for the issuance of arrest warrants.

"I have been doing this job for 37 years, and the single biggest reason that warrants get issued for violation of probation is for failure to report," Popplewell said. "And if you ask them why they don't report, they'll generally say they didn't have a ride or they couldn't get off work or some other reason like that and this app effectively eliminates those obstacles."

Popplewell said probationers have responded positively to the app's functions and that no instances of fraud have been reported, adding that probationers are largely thankful for the convenience it offers.

"So many of them are really appreciative of the opportunity to report without the inconvenience of being required to come in person," Popplewell said. "It's a privilege that we can take away if we feel they're trying to abuse it."

So far, the app has been rolled out in several CSRA Probation Services offices across the state, and Popplewell said their Brunswick offices have seen exceptional success using the app.

"Our Brunswick office is on the I-95 corridor, and it works great for them because they get a lot of transient people coming down I-95," Popplewell said. "They may be going on vacation, and for whatever reason they are traveling and end up in Brunswick and on probation. You can't realistically expect them to drive to Brunswick once a month for a relatively minor misdemeanor offense. So this app is just great for those people that live out of town."

Longtime probation officer Jill Guin, regional director of CSRA Probation Services in Evans, said that the app is a giant leap forward from the time of taking interview notes from probationers with pen and paper.

"The app is very convenient for probationers. I have people in different states that check in, and it tells you exactly where they are and shows their picture," Guin said. "Where we used to have people call in that were from different states and had to just go by what they were saying, the app shows us exactly where they are. We just keep up with it that way and it has made it a lot easier."

Guin said that they are still in the testing phases, adding that so far it has worked very well.

Ultimately, the goal is to get people through probation successfully, and Popplewell said the app is going to do just that.

"We just feel like it's really going to increase the compliance rate of people on probation, and every time we make it easier to succeed on probation, that results in success across the board," Popplewell said.

"We have to issue fewer warrants, we have to have fewer hearings, judges and prosecutors and public defenders don't have to take up time. It just really benefits everybody."

And Popplewell explained that he doesn't believe the app is taking away from the idea of accountability required for the offender breaking the law, but he also added that it is important for the punishment to match the crime.

"They're still being held accountable. Generally the purpose of probation is a level of accountability to help ensure that there's not future incidents of criminal offenses," Popplewell said. "And if a person knows they are being monitored, whether it's by coming in person or by reporting via the smartphone app, we feel like the end result is to try to have a successful outcome for somebody that is on probation."

The app is not the first approach to self-reporting, according to Popplewell, who said that state probationers are given the ability to call a 1-800 number to self-report each month. The longtime probation officer said he has just taken it to the next level, to help his clients succeed. The app has been contracted out for use in Indiana and has also been submitted for consideration to the Florida Department of Corrections.

"I am not aware of any other company utilizing a smartphone app the way we have. I think there may be a couple other companies around the country having something similar in development, but I am not aware of any," Popplewell said.

"I would be glad to share the technology with any other agency or department that is interested in using it," he said.

"Self-reporting is just part of the technological movement in the criminal justice system," Popplewell added. "I just think mine is the coolest one out there."

 

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