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April 2012

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


Probation Offices Look to Technology to Offset Budget, Staffing Reductions

Probation Offices Look to Technology to Offset Budget, Staffing Reductions

Budget problems are affecting everyone in the federal Judiciary, but Chief Probation Officer Eileen Kelly in the Eastern District of New York knew she had a real problem when she got her budget projections.

“My projections were in the red,” said Kelly. “I had to figure out how to keep my office running without laying people off and devastating the department.” At the same time, Kelly knew the District of Arizona, with a rising caseload, couldn’t find enough well-qualified officers to do presentence reports.

Kelly contacted Arizona Chief Probation Officer Mario Moreno with a possible solution for both districts: videoconferencing.

“If our officers can videoconference presentence interviews with prisons here in New York State to avoid officers traveling, why can’t we do the same work for another district?” she said.

In the District of Arizona, where the workload has outpaced its ability to hire probation officers, there is a long history of using videoconferencing. During Fiscal Year 2011, just over 5,000 videoconference sessions were recorded by probation officers and defense attorneys.

Videoconference presentence interviews are only conducted for prisoners already in custody. The presentence reports recommend sentencing options and release conditions tailored to the individual, based on the officer’s investigation of the offender’s living conditions, family relationships, community ties and drug use. They also help the supervision officer to have a history of the offender when he or she leaves incarceration.

Webcam or videoconference interviews save time and money in some cases, but officers still spend a majority of their time in the field verifying information, using traditional investigative techniques, and interacting with offenders, frequently in high-crime areas of the community.

Forty-nine percent of the work time of Probation Officer Michelle Espinoza in the Eastern District of New York is dedicated to the District of Arizona, without Espinoza leaving Brooklyn. By videoconference from New York, she conducts presentence interviews in mainly illegal reentry cases in Arizona. Espinoza’s salary is paid by Arizona, which gets temporary use of an experienced probation officer, without the cost of hiring and training, or providing space for an officer.

“Before I started, I visited Arizona’s Tucson office and a prison there to see how their videoconferencing worked,” Espinoza said. “When I returned to New York, our IT people set up a three-way videoconference for me. I see the inmate at the facility, and the attorney and the court interpreter. Each party sees the other two screens. You only have an hour for the interview, but it goes a bit faster for me because I understand Spanish.” Currently Espinoza is only doing the simplest cases for Arizona. Their videoconferencing project is currently set up as a pilot that, if successful, could expand to more districts that either need help or are able to offer help. Arizona is preparing a similar arrangement with the Eastern District of Missouri.

According to Chief Probation Officer Mario Moreno, in a recent Arizona survey of defense attorneys who have represented defendants with presentence reports prepared by officers in other districts, 90 percent said they did not experience any impediment or obstacles with reports prepared by officers in other districts.

"I see the inmate at the facility, and the attorney and the court interpreter. Each party sees the other two screens. "

—Probation Officer Michelle Espinoza

“The benefits of using videoconferencing for presentence reports includes enhancement of public safety (due to the fact that prisoners do not need to be transported), better use of probation officers’ time when they don’t make the long drive to enter a prison facility, plus agency scheduling efficiencies and timeliness,” said Moreno.

The Middle District of Florida covers a large portion of the state. End to end, Chief Probation Officer Elaine Terenzi estimates it would take 7–8 hours to drive from Big Cypress National Preserve in the south to Jacksonville in the north.

“The biggest cost for me is the time officers spend driving. We can’t afford it when we’re understaffed due to budget cuts. That’s why videoconferencing is so helpful for us,” Terenzi says. “My staff would not be able to get the work done if it weren’t for videoconferencing.”

The Probation Office in the Middle District of Florida has five videoconference units in almost continuous use for presentence interviews.

A presentence interview starts with the private attorney or federal public defender having time to talk with his or her client in one of the rooms designed for videoconferencing with a small conference table and a 50-inch video screen. At the prison, where the video equipment is set up, the offender looks into the video camera and picks up a telephone to speak with the attorney. After about 20 minutes, the probation officer, and often an interpreter, join the videoconference and the interview begins. All participants can see each other.

The prisons housing offenders like the arrangement.

“It saves them money because they don’t have to provide access in and out of the prison and do security checks on visitors—all of which eats up staff time and money,” said Terenzi. Money also is saved on interpreters’ costs. Otherwise, their travel costs might include a half to full day of travel when they must visit jails outside of the general area. And jails are increasingly remote, according to Terenzi, with some Florida offenders housed as far away as Georgia.

“It doesn’t just save us money, it saves attorneys money, too,” said Terenzi. “An attorney can be in downtown Tampa and talk with their client who is in custody at the other end of the district.”

Distance was the motivation behind the Probation Office in the Western District of Kentucky’s move to presentence interviews by webcam. As in the Middle District of Florida, officers were losing half a day or more driving to remote jails while the district was short on staff.

Chief Probation Officer Kathyrn Jarvis initially looked into videoconferencing with the jails, but the county jails didn’t have funding for the equipment. That’s when the Administrative Office pointed her to WebEx, a web conferencing application.

“It requires some training, but it’s easy and it’s relatively cheap with the court’s national contract,” said Jarvis. “All you need is a telephone and a laptop with a built-in camera or webcam and an email account.”

Jarvis contacted several jails who were willing to put a telephone in a room and set up a laptop. “The person who brings the offender or defendant into the room at the jail opens the laptop, accepts the invitation to the meeting that we’ve sent by email, and the video connection is made. We just call them on the phone,” said Jarvis. If releases need to be signed, they are faxed to the jail, the defendant signs, the jail staff witnesses, and the forms are faxed back.

“One time we had a CJA panel attorney sitting in his house in Louisville, the case was assigned to a presentence writer sitting at her desk in Bowling Green, and the defendant was housed in Marion county jail. The jailer didn’t have to transport him anywhere. He walked into a room and all the participants did the presentence interview,” said Jarvis. “It’s an easy way to facilitate good communication between the stakeholders without having to travel.”

“Everybody is short-handed these days,” said Jarvis. “We’re trying to figure out how we can fulfill our statutory mission, and cut those things that take time and money, without diminishing quality. My issue is rapport. Is the person receiving the communication in a way that doesn’t unintentionally make them feel like a widget moving through the system? But we’ve had nothing but positive feedback. Even the attorneys love it. It saves the system money.”

Now Jarvis’ supervision officers would like to try the webcam to interview offenders in pre-release status in halfway houses. “We’re still working on that,” said Jarvis.

Jarvis, Terenzi, and Kelly are clear that a videoconference or webcam interview is no substitute for supervision or fieldwork. “Once the offender is released and they’re in the community, you’re seeing them,” says Jarvis.

And there is no substitute for a good presentence interview.

“We have no control over the number of cases we get. We have to do them, and we should,” said Terenzi. “Frankly, the judge’s sentencing decision is only as good as the information in the presentence report. Without investigating, you don’t know if we’re missing something. You need the information so that you can narrowly prescribe the kinds of evidence-based interventions that actually have an impact. At the foundation of a good decision is that presentence report.”