Georgia Probation Program Lets Some Offenders Phone It In

E-newsletter Issue #100 | September 13, 2012

The Georgia Department of Corrections had a problem with probation two years ago. It was upside down, with the majority of officers managing the probationers who were least likely to reoffend.

Of the 105,000 offenders on active probation in Georgia, more than 80,000 of them are deemed low risk and not likely to reoffend.

“We have approximately 820 to 830 probation officers statewide,” said Cliff Hartley, field services manager for probation operations for the Georgia Department of Corrections. “We had approximately 64 to 65 percent of officers managing the lowest-risk caseloads. The remainder of the officers were struggling to manage higher-risk cases, sex offenders, violent offenses, things like that.”

Hartley said they had to find a more efficient way to handle the high volume of low-risk offenders to free up more officers to provide better case management for higher risk offenders. Technology was the key.

The Probation Reporting Contact Center—selected as a 2012 Innovations Award winner by The Council of State Governments—lets select low-risk probationers call an 800 number monthly to report their status to an automated system instead of having to report in person to a probation officer.

Calls made to the contact center are answered by an automated interactive system. If red flags are raised during the call, the probationer is routed through the contact center to speak with one of the 11 call handlers who man the center. The handlers try to clarify and resolve the matter without engaging the probation officer. If a handler has concerns while talking to the probationer, however, he or she contacts the probation officer handling the case and turns the call over to that officer. Otherwise, the handlers take notes and post them to the state’s secure database so the person’s probation officer can see updates immediately.

“Call handlers all come from a probation background,” Hartley said. “There are over 190 combined years of experience between those 11. They know probation. They know when a red flag comes up. They know how to take appropriate notes and talk to a probationer.”

Hartley said the system allowed the state to increase the caseload of officers handling low-risk offenders from about 235 to more than 400. This freed up 90 probation officers to work with higher-risk offenders.

Pam Gould, chief probation officer for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, has spent 23 years with the Georgia Department of Corrections. She said the contact center has been a boon to her and her staff, who handle about 3,800 low-risk offender cases.

“That’s a lot of folks walking in the door, if you will, clogging up the lobby,” she said. “Just to try to give them quality supervision is almost impossible with that many people.”

Gould said about 1,200 of the offenders her office manages use the Probation Reporting Contact Center. It helped free up three or four officers, out of a staff of 30 officers, to work with higher-risk offenders.

Hartley said the programming needed to set up the contact center was done in-house with the Governor’s Office of Customer Service, which helped create call-in lines for other state departments.

“That’s two strong points,” Hartley said. “The data is our data; the system is our system. It’s not a situation where some commercial company has come in with software and they own the data and they own the system.”

The state does use two companies to handle call routing and the technology that makes the call automated. Those contracts cost the department slightly more than $100,000 annually. There are no office costs, since the call handlers work from home. A person on regular, low-risk probation costs the state $1.68 per day, Hartley said. Using the call center, that same offender costs just 45 cents per day. As additional probationers are assigned, the cost per day per probationer will go even lower.

Both Hartley and Gould said the system is easily transferrable to other states, but any policymaker looking at adopting a similar system should keep a few things in mind.

Gould said the state needs a method for evaluating how likely the probationer is to reoffend. Probationers are not automatically assigned to the contact center; they have to earn the right to use it. Some offenders, such as those who commit sexual crimes, won’t be considered.

“We initially would not take violent crimes,” Gould said. “Now, if the violent crime occurred at least five years ago, they will be considered if they’re already complying with their terms of probation. Each state needs to consider how long they need to see offenders progress through their sentence before they proceed to this lower level (of supervision).”

Hartley said policymakers need to make sure the judiciary supports the change. Georgia courts will take information provided by the contact center into evidence in cases. Getting everybody behind this type of supervision for low-risk offenders can sometimes be tough politically, Hartley said, but it can be a good move toward achieving efficiency and heightened public safety.

“You have to look at what you’re really accomplishing,” Hartley said. “You’re asking them (probationers) to take a 30 minute drive to the office, sit in the lobby for 45 minutes and see an officer for seven minutes. You’re interrupting their home, interrupting their employment, interrupting their education, interrupting child care. What can you accomplish in that seven minutes that you couldn’t accomplish with this low-risk probationer in about five minutes and a phone call?”

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