High Concept

Almost 4 million adults are on probation in the United States, according to the Justice Department's latest figures. Most of them have committed felonies like drug possession, drunk driving, and shoplifting. The courts order them to report regularly to probation officers, who number 50,000 nationwide. That's a ratio of about 80 probationers to one officer. As Law & Order types struggle to keep tabs on the growing probation population, they are turning to the private sector for help.

AutoMon, a 20-person company based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has developed an ATM-like touch-screen kiosk that automates probation officers' routine interviews. AutoMon's Michael Mel says that 75,000 people each month report to 150 kiosks located in probation offices, police stations, and courthouses in 16 states. In New York City, monthly probation compliance has improved to more than 80% since the city installed the system in all five boroughs.

The system uses a biometric -- a hand- or fingerprint -- to ensure the identity of the person logging on to make his or her monthly report. The user is asked questions about address, employment, and whatever specifics an officer might add to the script. AutoMon's software conducts the interview using simulated speech (in either English or Spanish) to accommodate users with low literacy levels. If all goes well, the process takes two minutes. But whenever there's an aberrant answer, the probationer is asked additional questions. If he or she admits to a fresh arrest, an instant message is sent to alert the case officer that intervention may be required.

Although probation kiosks are unquestionably convenient for both parties, they do reduce potentially valuable face time between probationers and their monitors. But Mel points out that those who are assigned to kiosks "are mostly people who made a mistake and got into trouble, and their main objective is to comply with the court." Dealing with their cases electronically enables officers to focus on more serious cases, he explains. As Jerrold Alpern, assistant commissioner of New York City's Department of Probation, puts it: "The kiosks don't replace POs. They just enable them to be more efficient."

The probation population is, sadly, a burgeoning market: it grew 65% from 1988 to 1998.

The system is also cost-effective. Alpern says that AutoMon helps his department cope with budget cuts, enabling 7% of the workforce to manage 25% of the caseload. While New York paid AutoMon a flat fee (price of a starter kit: $60,000), some cities have opted for what Mel dubs the "offender pay" model, in which probationers themselves shell out $5 to $10 each month to use the system -- a clever turnabout of the old adage that "crime doesn't pay."


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