By Nadine Ono.
Texting with smartphones is ubiquitous in our society — it’s the way families, friends and businesses communicate. The Riverside County Probation Department can be added to that list, as it has been testing a program since March that allows probation officers to communicate with their clients through texting via smartphones.
“When we stepped outside and started looking at the customer who’s coming in, we started saying, ‘Are we aligned with what the customer’s needs are?’” said Chief Deputy Probation Officer Ron Miller.
The program, titled CORE (Communicating Openly Requires Engagement), is currently in use with one probation officer, who has a dedicated iPhone for her clients. “We started with the jail reduction project, but as we did a workload review, we started looking at the processes of engagement,” explained Miller on why the program was created.
With a caseload of 30 clients, Senior Probation Officer Jaime MacLean sees the value of being able to communicate with her clients through texts. “It’s building relationships, not like ‘Hey, you missed your appointment.’ Sometimes I have to say that, but they really do feel like you care and I feel like they’re more willing to be compliant.”
Part of building relationships with clients involves texting announcements and reminders for events such as job fairs, sending inspirational messages to lift their spirits in addition, checking-in as part of their probation, or allowing clients to text photos as proof of required activities.
The traditional way of communicating with clients is through phone calls and regular appointments, which is sometimes the only contact. And, if a client misses an appointment, unless he or she can connect by phone, the officer has no way of knowing what happened, which could lead to a violation.
McLean said the extra engagement is paying off. “They’re more willing to be honest via text message.” She explained that it is often hard for clients admit mistakes, such as using drugs or alcohol, over the phone or face-to-face. She added that sometimes clients will meet with her and say everything is OK, but then text her their problem after they leave the office.
“The whole point is trying to figure out how we can work on things together, instead of them feeling like they don’t want to come in and tell their probation officer what’s going on,” said McLain. “If they have a better relationship with me, they’re more willing to figure out what the next steps can be together.”
MacLean said she has one client with bad anxiety who is uncomfortable sitting in the waiting room. With the ability to text, the client can let her know when he has arrived, so that she can meet him at the door and bring him directly to the office. “Otherwise,” she said, “he just wouldn’t show up.” And not showing up could lead to a violation and possibly back in jail.
In the months since CORE has been in use, only three clients have violated their probation. Normally, the probation department sees about three violations per month with a similar caseload, showing that different ways of engagement can lead to success. The jail utilization studyconducted by CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative team showed that probation violations lead to a sizable number of jail stays. This places a strain on the resources of the county, which is under a court-ordered cap on its jail population.
According to Miller, programs such as CORE and Bridge are a way to work with clients for better outcomes.
“I think one of the key elements is that we all came into the business thinking we were going to make a difference,” said Miller, adding that the current systems often keep clients cycling through the criminal justice system. “If I can help you make better decisions, we can be friends, but you have to move on. There’s another life that’s waiting for you, but hopefully it’s not in custody.”
Miller said would like to expand the program by making the smartphones available to more, if not all, probation officers and possibly create an app that would help his probation officers create reports and deliver resource information while in the field.
Before texting, “it was formal, you had an office appointment,” said MacLean. “You have a home appointment and you basically talk about the same type of stuff every month.”
But now with more communication, she added, “hopefully they complete probation and the goal is to get them every day to climb up the ladder. We don’t want them to fall down the ladder.”