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December 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


NODS Interface Locates Information Nationwide

Pretrial services and probation officers are finding it easier to locate—and access information on—defendants and offenders within the federal probation and pretrial services system nationwide with a new web-based application called the National Offender Defendant System (NODS). NODS is essentially a point of interconnection. It combines access to Judiciary personnel on PeopleFinder, which helps locate probation and pretrial services officers, as well as all the defendant/offender information on the Probation/Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS), all the case information on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, and violations in the Central Violations Bureau’s system.

The ground-breaking interface wasn’t possible until recently. NODS takes advantage of the recent consolidation of PACTS servers into a primary server and a fail-over counterpart.

“You have to remember that there once were 94 servers, each with a PACTS application. If we had a new application or an upgrade, we had to reach out to each one of those 94 servers,” says Nick DiSabatino, Chief of the Probation and Pretrial Services Technology Division, Office of Probation and Pretrial Services. DiSabatino likes to demonstrate on a map how the number of servers nationwide multiplies into legions as local servers and district servers for various other applications are added.

When the applications were maintained exclusively on a local basis, officers could not access data stored in other districts. This posed a problem because defendants and offenders do not limit their activities to one district—for example it is estimated that 25 percent of persons under supervision will move from one district to another during the period of supervision.

NODS can locate information on defendants and offenders with records in multiple districts, on offenders/defendants who were transferred to another district for supervision, or who may have simply been assigned different probation officers over time.

“Officers need to quickly access information related to earlier prosecutions in other districts for their pretrial and presentence reports,” notes Matthew Rowland, Deputy Assistant Director in the AO’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services. “Also, officers supervising defendants and offenders need to determine the whereabouts of codefendants in cases where association is an issue. NODS has proven useful to officers in performing their duties, as evidenced by the application being accessed an average of nearly 200 times a day.”

“NODS pulls it all together to make a powerful information system,” says DiSabatino. “When you enter an offender or defendant’s name, you can retrieve a photo, personal statistics, the supervision status, dates of investigations, and the name of the supervising officer. The case number will lead you directly into PACER where you can check records, view the sentence imposed and other documents. Hit another key and you jump to PeopleFinder to get contact information for the assigned probation or pretrial services officer.”

NODS also allows searches based on partial case or personal information, and it maintains an audit record so the user can see who else viewed the same case records. Best of all, probation and pretrial services officers can access NODS from anywhere, at anytime, from their laptops or personal digital assistants (PDAs).

However, NODS cannot be used to access confidential court documents, such as the presentence report and statement of reasons, nor is there access to treatment information, or the assigned officers’ notes regarding the case.

NODS was originally designed exclusively for use by Judiciary staff, but according to DiSabatino, another version—with limited features—is in the works for an external audience. The outside version would, for example, link to a limited version of PeopleFinder, and not link to PACER.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the Criminal Division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have expressed an interest in NODS. The IRS has asked for access because it requires its agents to confirm when defendants convicted of tax violations—particularly those who owe restitution to the government—have completed their sentences. In return for access to NODS, the IRS may possibly provide federal probation and pretrial services officers with the electronic means to confirm the income claimed, taxes paid, and dependents declared by persons subject to presentence investigation and post-conviction supervision.

The probation and pretrial services system is working with the BOP to provide presentence and sentencing data electronically to expedite inmate processing and programming. In turn, the BOP provides probation and pretrial services officers with access to a system similar to NODS, allowing officers to determine the institution housing an inmate. BOP also provides data from its computer systems to ensure districts are aware of all inmates released to their jurisdiction. They’ve agreed to expand the data to include treatment and programming information.

To control the potential for abuse of NODS, access is limited at this point to law enforcement and correctional agencies. The application also uses encrypted connections and account authentication processes, and partially masks the social security numbers and dates of birth of defendants and offenders, unless a specific record is selected. Once a specific record has been selected, an auditing feature captures the user name and contact information of the person making the selection. Similar safeguards will be put into place for external agencies.