Goal: Help Probationers Stay on Track and Out of Trouble

From left, UMass Lowell faculty members Ron Corbett, April Pattavina and Guanling Chen Image by K. Webster
Prof. April Pattavina and Ron Corbett in criminology and justice studies won a grant with Assoc. Prof. of Computer Science Guanling Chen to plan next-generation electronic monitoriing.

By Katharine Webster

Electronic monitoring can be a useful tool for supervising people on probation or parole. It tells case officers whether the offenders are going to work and school – or visiting trouble spots, like bars and drug markets.

What it doesn’t do well is help offenders meet the conditions of their probation or parole so that they avoid violations and the resulting jail time, says Associate Prof. April Pattavina, who teaches in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies

Now Pattavina has teamed up with two other faculty members – Ron Corbett in criminology and justice studies and Assoc. Prof. Guanling Chen in computer science – to develop the next generation of electronic monitoring, using smartphones and sensor technology along with GPS tracking to promote and reward constructive behaviors that can keep probationers on track and out of jail.

Pattavina, the principal investigator, and her team have just won a $99,000 National Science Foundation planning grant for BEACON (Behavioral Economics Application with Correctional Opportunities Notification). 

“For too long, we’ve focused on catching offenders when they screw up. It used to be ‘Tail, nail and jail,’” says Corbett, a part-time faculty member who previously served as acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service and executive director of the state Supreme Judicial Court. “We think we can cut down on probation violations this way.”

The grant is part of a nationwide push for criminal justice reforms based on research evidence. Pattavina’s team is building on studies that show rewarding positive actions can be more effective at changing behavior than simply punishing negative conduct.

“We’re looking at different ways we could promote positive behavior, like reminding probationers about treatment appointments and job opportunities and then sending them positive reinforcement messages when they follow through,” she says. 

Corbett says police, prosecutors, judges and probation officers increasingly recognize that many people caught up in the criminal justice system are dealing with mental illness, addiction, poverty, homelessness, lack of education and other problems that make it hard for them to meet all the conditions of probation.

“One of the things we know about this population is they come in with significant deficits,” Corbett says. “We underestimate how disorganized the average probationer is, and if you’re not well-organized, you’re in trouble.”

Pattavina, Corbett and Ph.D. candidate Elias Nader will interview ex-offenders who have completed probation about what helped them succeed. They will also interview practitioners – police, probation officers and substance abuse treatment professionals – to figure out what strategies make the most sense to pursue. 

Chen and his graduate students will figure out how to incorporate those strategies into a smartphone app or suite of apps, leveraging existing GPS functionality and emerging technologies. 

“Think of it as a personal coach, like a weight-loss program, to keep probationers motivated and accountable,” Chen says.

Monitoring capabilities that make use of sensing technology could also provide information about changes in behavior that indicate a probationer is at risk of violating probation conditions.

“With smartphones, we can know about the phone calls they’re making, websites they’re visiting and details of their behavior,” Chen says. “But it’s not just about surveillance. We may be able to incorporate prediction capabilities. For example, we can use algorithms to analyze movement and sleep patterns, along with cyber-activities, that could signal possible substance abuse or mental health problems. Case managers can then be alerted to provide an early intervention.”

The team’s primary goal is to divert those under community supervision before they get stuck in a cycle of crime, incarceration and recidivism. BEACON has the potential to make communities safer and decrease correctional costs while helping address the issues that got the probationers into trouble in the first place, Pattavina says. Long-term, BEACON could provide a wealth of data, such as what services probationers use most frequently and which communities are in need of more resources.

“Research shows that just that message – that we want them to succeed and that we’re putting the pieces in place to help them succeed – can have a positive impact on behavior,” Corbett says.