I, with my colleague Gary Zajac (Penn State), recently completed a feasibility evaluation of a collaborative demonstration project between the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and Securus Software Ltd., examining the implementation of offender management software for the computer use of sex offenders in PA. Below is the Executive Summary of that report.
Elliott, I. A., & Zajac, G. (2014). Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole Offender Management Software Pilot: Feasibility evaluation report. University Park, PA: Justice Center for Research, Pennsylvania State University.
Ensuring effective supervision of sex offenders in the community remains of considerable concern for both criminal justice agencies and the general public alike. Law enforcement agencies are required to balance public protection, community safety, and accountability for victims with encouragement and support to promote successful reentry into the community for sex offender clients. Along with mandated registration, notification and residence restrictions, sex offenders can also be placed under further legal conditions, which can include limiting or revoking the offender’s access to communications technologies (e.g., the internet).
Recent legal scrutiny has noted that limitations on internet access for sex offenders may be overbroad and unconstitutional and/or constitutionally vague (e.g., Doe v. Jindal et al., 2012), and a possibility exists that all-inclusive restrictions may be themselves limited or abolished. Consequently, an approach to the supervision of computer-use is needed in which registered sex offenders can be provided with full access to communications technologies, but in a way that provides adequate monitoring. A recent series of demonstration projects in the United Kingdom evaluated the use of offender management software (OMS) as a management strategy. This approach has now been implemented in a number of regional police forces across the U.K. (e.g., London Metropolitan Police).
In light of this, a U.S.-based demonstration project was designed to investigate the possibility of a similar implementation of OMS by the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (PBPP) using technology provided by a U.K.-based software company, Securus Software Ltd. Securus OMS monitors computers for pre-defined prohibited words and phrases. When the software detects a match between a word/phrase, typed or viewed, with one from any of its active libraries it captures an image of the user’s screen at that moment. These captured images can then be viewed remotely by the monitoring agent by remotely logging into the secure server, via a management console, from any computer with internet access. The report that follows outlines a feasibility study that aimed to evaluate the success with which the PBPP was able to implement Securus OMS for registered sex offenders in targeted areas within Pennsylvania and allowed supervising agents to remotely monitor potential violations of acceptable use. The feasibility study also developed a program logic model, to clarify the expected theory of change, and a process model that outlined the various stages of implementation.
Participants were four agents from the PBPP Pittsburgh District Office, each with a current caseload of sex offender clients and the technical capability to use OMS, and seven adult male registered sex offender clients (average age = 44 years ) with prior agent-imposed restrictions on access to personal computers, laptops, smartphones, and/or communications technology. Client’s machines were monitored for an average duration of approximately 4.4 months. For the feasibility study, data on the captures from the OMS server were collected and analyzed and data on implementation were collected via semi-structured interviews with various individual stakeholders and via feedback questionnaires completed by client participants.
The server data provided 1796 captures from a total of 9 monitored machines – an average of 13.1 captures per day and 256.6 captures per offender – equating to 3.3 captures per day, per agent. Extrapolating frequencies at this rate estimates that an agent supervising 30 sex offenders clients using OMS would be receiving an average of almost 100 (98.2) captures per day.
Although agents remain skeptical about sex offender clients being allowed to own a computer, they reported a sense of inevitability that restricting sex offender clients’ access to communications technology would become increasingly difficult and that the OMS approach had a positive impact on their work and would be of benefit to the ongoing community management of sex offender clients. As anticipated, some problems in operational implementation were raised. These included issues around availability and attendance in training and its relationship with agents’ opinions about the user-friendliness of the software, and the apparent lack of enforcement of the intended frequency and duration of monitoring and a lack of uniformity in levels of monitoring between agents. Due to OMS not capturing any new offenses during the demonstration project, it was not possible to implement or assess the procedures that would follow. Nonetheless, this feasibility study found that this OMS approach was sound and implementable in theory and those difficulties in implementation are such that we anticipate that they could be resolved through realistic changes to implementation and better communication between the various stakeholders.
Seven recommendations are made: (1) refine training methods and enforce attendance; (2) refine the libraries and make them more specific to the PBPP context; (3) establish policies and standardize practice relating to the frequency and regularity of monitoring by agents; (4) develop processes for presenting OMS evidence to provide a rationale for further investigative action; (5) seek ways in which to increase the numbers of participating agents and clients; (6) collect workload data as standard practice to examine the effects of OMS on workload; and (7) establish a future funding strategy in order to make OMS as cost-effective as possible.
It is concluded that with targeted modifications in practical implementation of the approach, the PBPP can achieve the goal of incorporating OMS into supervisory practice and to provide PBPP agents with an extra tool with which to ensure public safety – one that also has potential important pro-social benefits for the client – and thus make a valuable contribution to established methods for the supervision of sex offenders in Pennsylvania.