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October 2008

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


DSS Opens Data Warehouse

The Judiciary’s new Decision Support System (DSS) puts a results-based, data-driven system at the fingertips of probation and pretrial services officers. It gives them access to a veritable warehouse of data with an array of tools to easily analyze and report the information in a way that improves decision making. 

The DSS project consolidates the information from the Probation/Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS), used by all 94 districts, into the National PACTS Reporting Database. The NPR database produces all the nationally published statistical reports and operational workload statistics for probation and pretrial services offices.

“Previously only portions of each district’s PACTS data were sent to the AO,” said Matt Rowland, who heads up DSS development at the AO. “It was a challenge to consolidate and report that data in a way that was useful to decision makers. With DSS, we bring in every single record from PACTS. That means we have millions of additional data elements and with new reporting technologies, we can slice and dice the data very easily. Plus, all the districts can see the data. They don’t have to wait for the AO to run reports. It’s there, on demand, whenever they want it.”

Logging into Version I of DSS, users can view dashboards on clinical services, post-conviction supervision, pre-sentence reports, pretrial services, and workload. Dashboard is a term used for the Web-based display of data. Like a car’s dashboard, it shows how the machine is performing. For example, a probation officer may want to see the average Risk Prediction Index (RPI) score for offenders over a period of time, or the average cost of treatment per offender. A few clicks of the mouse and the information is displayed in interactive graphs or tables. Data can also be filtered over time by race, offender’s criminal history score, by volume of work, and many other factors. Eventually, DSS will have mapping capabilities. A probation officer seeing a rise in, for example, methamphetamine cases, could look at the statistics for neighboring districts to see if have have experienced a similar increase. Whatever the information, it is available for all the districts to see.

“DSS gives me the ability in a click to take the pulse of my district,” said Kathryn Jarvis, deputy chief probation officer in the Western District of Kentucky. “It tells me where my numbers are compared to the last quarter or the last fiscal year. I can compare where we stand in our circuit in terms of detention rates or cases received or anything like that.”

“Our goal is to use DSS to look at trends and patterns and to see if what we’re doing is working,” said Barb Feril, deputy chief probation officer in the Eastern District of Michigan. “We can see what the average cost per client is per treatment and per quarter. Are we getting what we pay for when we compare our results to other districts? Are we in line with them? How do our revocation rates compare within our circuit and nationally? I may want to look at the RPI, and the criminal history scores, and see if the treatment and types of supervision we select are making a difference.”

Because Feril’s office is considering restructuring, they will also use DSS to see how positions are used in districts with similar workloads.

Jarvis also plans to use DSS to identify districts that seem similar to the Western District of Kentucky in workload. “I can network with them, find out what they’re doing and how they’re addressing certain issues and workload,” she said.

Feril’s and Jarvis’ districts are following a national trend to become results-driven. That was the recommendation of a 2004 study by the Urban Institute and IBM. The study recommended the development of an infrastructure and management approach focused on collecting, analyzing, and acting on outcome data. Key to this approach was a comprehensive outcome measurement framework. DSS delivers that framework.

In addition to the dashboards, information is available in DSS in detailed standardized reports, and in ad hoc reports that allow users to drag and drop factors from different sources.

“DSS’ strength” said Rowland “is in its ability to quickly show trends across multiple years, or at the national, circuit, district, and divisional office levels. If you are aware of the trends, you can make more informed decisions.”

Jarvis noted that courts have always had their local PACTS reports to address operational, day-to-day requirements, but there also was a need to see the information from a higher organizational perspective. “Now,” she said, “DSS will help me in strategic planning, in looking at trends, and in staying proactive. It provides the larger picture. It’s a really powerful tool and I’m excited about using it.”

Rowland and his colleagues at the AO are already looking at additional databases to enrich DSS. “Census information, the FBI’s reported re-arrest data and Bureau of Prison releases, all would enrich the DSS database, showing relationships between data,” said Rowland.

“For decades, probation officers envisioned this kind of data mining,” he said, “but they didn’t have the technology. Now we do, and we have been able to take advantage of it thanks to the help of a number of people here at the AO, including those at the Systems Deployment and Support Division testing, training and support offices, many former and existing members of the Chief Probation and Pretrial Services Officers Advisory Group, the DSS Working Group, and the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee. So many things had to fall into place to make DSS happen, and it’s only going to get better.”