Webinar presenter Nick Sayner and Chris Williams answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Decision Day: Options for PreTrial Management. Here are some of their responses.
Audience Question: What is your advice for those agencies who are still operating in a paper-driven world? What are the best initial steps for starting that move towards an electronic system?
Nick Sayner: The first step is making a commitment to doing something different. Computer systems can be scary. There will be different offerings available. Lots of options – in-house, partnering with a third-party, another system from another provider. All of those things are options, but the biggest part is making the sole commitment to making change. It's a scary process but you must commit to it. The most recent data-system initiative we took a year and a half to do with us meeting on a weekly basis developing from the ground up. It takes quite a long time but there's no easy way to do it, you just must make the commitment and start looking at your options, evaluating them, see what works best for your jurisdiction.
Chris Williams: If you're going to meet with a third party vendor, find someone that is a good partner. Our PRETRIAL 360 is an off-the-shelf type of software, really designed for Pretrial. You'll be amazed how easy this stuff is — to convert data over to it and configure it to make it unique to your agency. A lot of people, when it comes to technology, thinks they can't make the jump from manual to technology. The jump is really smaller than you think it is.
Audience Question: Do you find that most agencies are more electronically based or some still very hybrid using both paper and electronic systems?
Nick Sayner: My experience has been it's usually a mix. A lot of times, it's a mix because they have a software system that doesn't necessarily meet all their needs. And sometimes, frankly, it because change is hard. When we went through one of our changes going from paper to our initial data system — I'm not kidding about this, our management team had to go around and take all of our pens so there won't be any other options than to enter our case notes into the data system. We had no other choice than to use. There were people who had been using this pen and paper system for a decade and then change your job on a day to day basis to use a software system is a huge jump for them. But once it started, it got a lot easier. But there's that piece where you have to force the issue. But yes, a lot of them are hybrid — even in some counties where we operate where we have no control over the software, we use the hybrid still.
Chris Williams: In my visits to different customers, I see it's either a hybrid like you said, or it's that paper binder. When we were talking about this webinar, I mentioned that I was amazed that back when I was in probation we had the case sheets and notes, everything was right there. It was all in these three-ring binders and you had to go to the file cabinet and get the binder out for Chris Williams. We had to do some of that then and I'm just surprised now that some are still using the same system. It surprises me that those are still out there — but I get it also. I understand it. It can be scary to take that first step in the right direction, but I also agree with him with the hybrid.
I met with another agency using a third party software and I asked why they're using both the third party and in-house system, as it seems confusing. It was exactly as Nick said, the third party software handled about 75% of her needs and the other tasks that need to be completed couldn't be done on the software. In my personal experience, if a software can't do it, if you got to use both — it's not going to make you more efficient.
Nick Sayner: Also, sometimes the software system can handle all their needs, but the users don't necessarily know how to use it. Sort of a desire to not engage either the software developers or require the data system to add reports or teach them how to do new reports. I have some colleagues in the state that I'm very jealous of as they have a data analyst — whom they can ask to generate a report for them which makes things a lot easier. Which might be a potential reason why there are a lot of hybrids.
Chris Williams: It's important to find the right partner. If you find the right partner, they'll go with you step by step, make sure that your team is up to speed on it, and find a software that's really user-friendly. I know that's probably the most overused term in the technology world, but it is so true.
Audience Question: What are the biggest obstacles to migrating to a more tech-system? Is it that people don't want to change? Is it a training issue? Is it about funding? Or is it the challenge of re-engineering processes? How do you address it?
Nick Sayner: It's all of that. They all pose an issue that needs to be addressed in a transition plan. If you're not addressing every one of those issues — training, people's fear of change, data migration — all of those things are important to be a part of a transition plan when you're going from paper to a data system. It's not easy or something you should take lightly. It can be easy but it's going to take time. One of the things that are most educational for me going through this process is the amount of readings, conversations and thought that went through each of those issues. It's not just, "We're going to train staff on the system," that's it. It's the in-depth training of the staff — where do we gather this certain information. When and where are you going to document information? We're talking about outcomes. The drop-down boxes, the checkboxes, as opposed to a text box. When we generate reports obviously informational text boxes aren't very useful. Information that's in a drop-down, checkbox, with independent and unique variables — you can start generating reports from. All of those things and issues must be communicated to the staff and addressed. I think that's what makes it scary for us. It's not a silver bullet answer where you're just going to address training or just focus on people who don't lie change and everything else will go smoothly. Each of those items must be addressed in your transition plan.
Chris Williams: That reminded me, I read an article not long ago it was based on people who don't want change and buy-in into the whole technology field. It was based around computers and the idea was that 10 years ago it was common to hear people say, "I'm not a computer person, I can't do it, I don't want to do it". And the whole idea of the whole article today you don't hear many people saying that, and the people who do say it — get left behind. It was an interesting article to read and you're going to have people who don't want to change — but even the people who are pretty steadfast, we are seeing more people buy into technology because it's been around for a while now. I think the industry has worked some of the kinks out of it.
Audience Question: Do most agencies have data analysts at this point?
Nick Sayner: No. Absolutely not. I wish they did. I wish I did. It's something where the field needs to go, but we as a Pretrial field are just looking in-house the data that we're seeing.
I've several colleagues that I worked with over the years in San Mesa County, what they're doing is amazing and very impressive and should be the standard across the board. To be able to look at data and prove that you're doing what you're supposed to be doing and you're adding value to the community… (inaudible)… You need to have that information in your fingertips. It's tied into funding, role. It's important for the Pretrial agencies to have independence and equal stand and footing with regards to other stakeholders — that can't happen if you don't have good data. You can't sit there and prove this is why we're important to the system, and you must be included in policy discussions or an equal seat at the table.
Audience Question: What are the benefits of having or using third-party systems versus an in-house legacy system?
Chris Williams: Funding is usually a really big one. Developing an in-house software with in-house IP is very time-consuming and expensive. If you have a team of 15 people developing a piece of software internally for you, that's a different scenario. But dealing with county budgets, usually, they have a half an IT person that helps develop some databases for them for certain portions of the county. I think what happens is you don't have enough developers to really create exactly what you need. What we offer at Tribridge is a really cool approach where we have an off-the-shelf product. Very similar to Microsoft Office which you can configure or even do some integrations and customize it to where you need it to be. Doing that does two things — you can do it faster and cheaper.
Nick Sayner: The maintenance. The fact that if I'm partnering with a third party they're the ones responsible to make sure it's up and running on a regular basis. They're accomplishing the issues in real time. If I'm in a county with limited resources, or even one with lots of IT resources… In Pretrial, you can't have your system go out, and have the judges and the district attorney's office and the defense going, "Hey, where are these risk assessments". It's a credibility issue that can be huge and it's hard to come back from it. So, having a third party being responsible for it, and as Chris says, is responsive and meets the needs of your jurisdiction.
Chris Williams: When you're developing a software internally, by the time that you're finished, the time it took to build software from the ground up, by the time you're finished, it is probably outdated. It's going to need updates and make it more modern. With a third party, you get around that, with automatic updates and different things that can happen. Just something to keep in mind.
Audience Question: On the organizational location of Pretrial programs such as in a prosecutor's office. Would you encourage an agency to separate Pretrial services into its own organization? If so, how do you encourage this development, if it's being housed somewhere else under a different organizational umbrella?
Nick Sayner: First of all, this is just my opinion, not speaking on behalf of NAPSA or NIC, or the other organizations I am involved in. My personal belief is that Pretrial agencies must be as independent as possible. There are certain stakeholders that Pretrial makes a good partnership with or make sense being under. From a structural standpoint and largely, it's very rare for Pretrial agencies that we set the state level or jurisdiction county level to have their own department or division. Most of the time, they're under another stakeholder. To me, there are two places that make the most sense to maintain the independence and neutrality. Probably the best fit is under the County Executive's Office or County Administration. Second, best is probably under court – because they're a neutral party as well. There get to be problems with both at some circumstances. Ideal standpoint is still have your separate independent department. I think what it comes down to is a culture issue. And I wish I could say that there's a ton of research on this issue — there isn't. But it's hard for me to believe, knowing what I know about criminal justice systems and stakeholders in general, that if you put Pretrial services agency and their operation under law enforcement or the Prosecutors office, with all due respect to both departments, is that their culture is going to bleed on to Pretrial. Pretrial is generally the middle-child in a lot of these organizations. Their funding is less, their mission and organizational values it's going to come second when you're talking about the outcome of these specific departments. And those all make sense. They have really independent invaluable role to play in criminal justice. I would make the argument that Pretrial also has that role, but the problem is that's very difficult to do if you're housed under another department.
The first step to encouraging that within your jurisdiction, especially if you're a jurisdiction that you're housed under law enforcement, probation, or Prosecutor’s office is to start having the conversation. The second best opportunity is to try to develop as much independence within that structure that you already have. Some of the best examples in places where I start getting really uncomfortable of Pretrial practitioners, is when they're under a department and they don't have control over their own budget, their funding strategies, or even organizational structure. That starts to really concern me because it's very easy to get away from the purpose and the mission of Pretrial if you're not careful. Especially if you're under a stakeholder whose mission and vision is different. I know that's not a great answer and this is a fight that's going to continue for decades to come. But that's my opinion that Pretrial services operate the best when independent.
Audience Question: You talked about the stages of the Pretrial profession, putting on your crystal ball hat on for a moment, what do you think the next phase will look like?
Nick Sayner: I'm a big fan of the National Institute of Corrections evidence-based decision-making initiative because that framework makes a lot of sense. One of the things we need to continue pushing forward on is research. Pretrial is a field that is sourly lacking independent research focused on stuff that was borrowed from corrections, stuff that was largely looking at success and outcomes of Pretrial supervision. Universal screening and risk assessment tools will continue to develop, I'm sure. But I would also say that one of the things that I'm hoping to see. I would love to see this generation deal with money bail and see the ultimate at the end of the day the elimination of money bail and move towards solely making decisions about releasing and detention based on risk. I'm hoping that is dealt with in this generation and the next generation. Focusing on generating more research and continuing to improve our practice.
Audience Question: On the failure to appears in the system… In addition to that, what is the role of reminders and mobile technology and better designed or more clear communications?
Nick Sayner: Of the few items that there's a ton of research on is court reminders and court reminder systems. It's sort of intuitive. When I talk to people about reminders, is that when we have a doctors or dentist's appointment, they call me the day before to remind me that I have an appointment the next day. We need to move our court reminding process to that same level. Whether it is a phone call, text message, email, all have shown to be effective and certainly a lot more effective than the traditional method of giving a note during a court hearing saying your next court date is in 4 to 6 weeks. To me, that is one of the things that we have research on — and if you're not doing some form of court reminder system and you're not using some form of technology which can make it a lot easier, whether it is robocalls or automate emails, text messages, all have shown to reduce failure to appear rates. I think it is based on what is the best fit for your jurisdiction.
I at one point in my career I was actually doing phone call reminders to remind people of their court dates. I don't think we need to do that anymore. I think we can move now to the practice of something some form of electronic communication and there's a number of options out there. Any of them is better than doing nothing. Most of them are actually better than the phone calls. Though phone calls are still thee tried and true measure to remind people their next court date.
Chris Williams: With our software, we do the court reminders, and we can do those things. When you think of it from a technology standpoint. I know today, I've been to a probation department in the last where the probationers still give them their card, and at the back of the card saying, "Your next appointment date…". We're still using that. There's a better way where you can even take, sit down with your participant, carry your probation notes as you're talking to them, build the court reminder there right as you're in the system, and when you closed out and save that person, they walk out of your office, the court reminded is already set up, all your information is already in the database. Everything is done right there. Talk about really being able to spend time with the participants or probationers that you really need to. That's what allows you to do this stuff. I'm with Nick, court reminders are great. I literally got one for my dad just yesterday.
Nick Sayner: We've been really successful with text messages. Text messaging has been fantastically successful for us, not just for court appearance reminders but also reminders of their drug tests, whatever.
Audience Question: What outcomes should all Pretrial service organizations be measuring?
Nick Sayner: There are two big ones. First is appearance rate, the percentage of people under Pretrial supervision that are appearing to court. Ideally, in a perfect world, you'd measure that not only for people under Pretrial supervision but all of the population in your jurisdiction. How often are people showing up to court? There's a couple of ways to measure that – either hearing based or individual based. The preferred method for my understanding is the individual based. How many people complete their entire court process without missing any court dates, and at the same time, from a court processing standpoint, looking at the hearing appearance rate where you look at how many appearances does an individual have and how many of them did they make. That's also a valuable measure. So, you need to have some measure of appearance.
The second piece is safety rate or new criminal activity rate. We're trying to move away from the negative measurements to positive. Safety rates is simply defined as whether someone is arrested or charged with a new offense while they're under Pretrial supervision or while they were released during the Pretrial period. You want to measure that not only to the people that are in Pretrial supervision but are to the people that are not on Pretrial supervision to serve as your comparison group to match risk levels, types of cases, types of charges.
The final one, which is just getting recognized, is the release rate. How many people are going after their initial appearance is being released. And again, that for whether the people are placed on Pretrial supervision or not. The reason why this is important is because of those three pillars, the 3Ms – maximizing release, appearance, and public safety. We want to match an outcome measure for each of those. Release rate is very simple — take a predefined time frame, a week, 2 weeks, a month… and say out of the people that made an appearance in the past week, 2 weeks or month, what percentage were released? The idea is a healthy Pretrial justice system that releases a large portion of individuals and they're going to perform well and again, you can take at those outcomes.