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Transforming Probation With Technology

By • Lara Mossler &Daniel Blank

“To increase public safety and manage the growth of prison populations, policymakers must work toward the safe and successful return to the community of individuals released from prison.”
--The Justice Center at The Council of State Governments

In order to combat shrinking budgets, many cities such as Chicago and Boston are transforming city services to ensure they flourish in an era where scalable and disruptive solutions are necessary. Departments of Justice are feeling the budget squeeze too. This is a major problem when you consider that, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, state spending on corrections has risen faster than spending on nearly any other state budget item—increasing by $40 billion in the 20 years from 1988 to 2008. Despite climbing corrections spending, rates of reincarceration remain high and continue to increase. Based on a Bureau of Justice Statistics’ study, it is estimated that half of released clients would be reincarcerated within three years.

We need collaborative approaches to tackle this complex challenge. One approach capturing nationwide attention (recently addressed by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole) is called Justice Reinvestment, which is a data-driven framework to improve public safety, reduce corrections and decrease spending. The savings generated from moving clients efficiently through the system are then reinvested into strategies that decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods where probation clients live.

While Justice Reinvestment is happening at the state level in Idaho, Michigan and West Virginia, how could this work at a municipal level? The New York City Department of Probation is one agency that is leading the way, giving clients a digital tool to hold themselves accountable: a goal-tracking web app. The app, MyNeON, is rooted in seven community-based brick-and-mortar locations called Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONs). Each NeON is a group of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and community residents focused on connecting probation clients who live in target neighborhoods to opportunities, resources and services.

The app is designed to encourage positive behavior change in clients by incentivizing participation in community goals. Probation clients digitally track and earn points for items that community leaders enter into the app. It’s customizable and reward-based. Interviews with clients themselves revealed that they use gamified apps frequently. As a result, MyNeON is designed as a mobile experience to accommodate as many devices as possible (including tablets). It’s also accessible as a URL from public desktop computers in NeONs.

The app does not just facilitate the activity in NeONs, it also generates useful data. This is critical because, according to The Council of State Governments, “Policy makers also lack geographic analyses about which benefits and services are being invested and coordinated in neighborhoods where many people under criminal justice supervision live.” MyNeON not only captures information about items taking place in each neighborhood but also records how many individuals earned points for attending. This is the simplest data, and there is plenty of room for expansion. However, the data tells a clear story that helps NYC DOP create relevant community partnerships. It helps answer critical questions: How fast are clients completing certain goals? What kinds of community goals are not represented in certain locations?

MyNeON provides clients with simple, targeted opportunities to get involved with their local community, generated by community leaders. As the New York City Department of Probation learns which programs are popular, its strategies are that much closer to success and savings for the agency and the community it serves.

About the Author

Daniel Blank

Daniel Blank is founder of Bureau Blank, a New York City based digital branding and design agency that works with clients in government, academia, infrastructure and non-profit. Daniel is especially interested in the overlap between physical infrastructure and social issues and believes design and technology have an important role to play in their future.

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About the Author

Lara Mossler

Lara Mossler specializes in digital strategy that solves problems for infrastructure, education, energy and government sectors. She is an author on several psychology research reports presented at professional conferences.

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