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Posts Tagged ‘parole’

Should Probation/Parole Officers Be On Social Media?

November 6th, 2017

There are two schools of thought for those in corrections and/or law enforcement when it comes to social media. The first is to avoid it at all cost. In short, don’t get on it in the first place. This position seemed natural for those that entered the field before social media took off in the early 2000’s. Why get involved in it when they have done fine without it for 20 or more years. Granted some of these folks are a bit behind the learning curve concerning social media and what can be gained from understanding its usage. The upside is many of these individuals are likely retiring and/or near retirement and their lack of tech savvy is being replaced by those who grew up with the Internet. Today’s reality is most of those now entering the profession have had one or more profiles for years before entering the field. Does anyone honestly expect them to give up their accounts? Of course not. This growing group of new officers and those who declined to opt out as suggested, leads us to the second school of thought, specifically it is okay to have social media provided you exercise caution. But what does “caution” mean when it comes to social media? Well, let’s explore it.

For most the primarily line of defense is to lock-down all those privacy settings for their social media. Don’t let anyone who is not a “friend” or connection see anything about you or what you post. Also, don’t let yourself be “tagged” without your permission and make sure your posts likewise can’t be shared without your authorization.  This is a good start, but it must be continually tweaked as social media sites like to make changes to their privacy settings (If you don’t know your profile’s privacy/security setting look to the help menu within your social media profile). Unfortunately, many users, including officers, consider having locked down settings is all they need to exercise caution. Well I can’t impress upon anyone this is not exercising caution, particularly if you are very active online. Let me explain what I am talking about.

I have seen officers who appear to have their setting locked down post things that their bosses would find very troubling, such as details about offender encounters, pictures of home visits, searches, etc. These kinds of posts and the commentary that often comes with them appear on the officer’s timeline. For some it doesn’t stop there. There are numerous officer only groups on various social media sites that restrict access to employed and/or retired officers. Some even go so far as to require a picture of official identification to gain access so that those interacting in the group have some level of confidence that their posts wouldn’t be shared. Here is a sample of posts that are all too frequently posted on these groups: Jokes about the circumstances of an offender’s arrest/revocation, details of office or home visits; negative comments about individual’s actual booking pictures; and posts soliciting comments about how many have angered defense counsels in courts. One officer noted in one post during an office day:

… somethings my mind wanders to a happy place where I am allowed to punch people in the throat.” In a reply the same officer noted they sometimes get angry with victims too.

I get that officers need a place to vent frustrations and these groups provide that space. But one has got to be naive to think that any online group can prevent online posts from seeing the light of day. Here is how it will happen.

Most likely, a fellow group member will alert someone at the person’s employer of a troubling post, either because they work there or because they know someone that does. In fact, if they work at the same location, they likely have an ethical duty to do so, which clearly overrides any group site policy. The next scenario will occur if a group member happens to find themselves in legal trouble (civil and/or criminal) and their social media posts become subject of discovery. No online group policy will prevent legal discovery.

Imagine the officer who posted they wish they were “allowed to punch people in the throat” defending themselves from an excessive force law suit. Heck, any officer might have trouble explaining themselves in such a lawsuit if they are an active member of an online group where such comments are common place. You get the picture.

So we must go beyond just making sure our privacy settings are secure. We must also be cautious of what we post online. How will it play with one’s supervisor or agency head? How will it appear if it comes out in a law suit? We also must be careful of what groups we join online. If the group regularly allows members to engage in discussions that show disdain for offenders, should a correctional “professional” be in that group? I will leave you to resolve that issue yourselves.  Make no mistake, I am no advocating that officers discard social media. I am only advocate using it cautiously and safely, whether is its personal, family or professional safety. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there.


For those interested in using social media as part of one’s duties I suggest looking at the American Probation and Parole Association’s Issue Paper, The Use of Social Media in Community Corrections.

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Social Media Restrictions for Non-Supervised Sex Offenders

June 20th, 2017

In May of this year, I mentioned that the Supreme Court was going to decide whether North Carolina’s criminal statute prohibiting sex offenders would stand constitutional scrutiny. I speculated it would be struck down and I guess I win a cigar because the entire Court voted to nullify North Carolina’s statute for violating the First Amendment (Packingham v. North Carolina)

So what does this mean for probation and post release conditions prohibiting sex offenders from using social media? Well, here is what my crystal ball tells me. First, let me note that Packingham was NOT on any form of community supervision. He had completed his sentence and was prosecuted for a new criminal offense, specifically accessing social media as a convicted sex offender. Let me repeat that… this person was not under any supervision condition prohibiting him from accessing social media.

My layman’s reading of the Supreme Court decision is that it currently does not invalidate supervision conditions prohibiting sex offenders’ from accessing social media. That said, my layman’s mind tells me that the Supreme Court in this decisions has recognized the significance of accessing to social media as it relates to the First Amendment. It has not struck down the supervision conditions but it has clearly indicated that they likely will be subject to judicial review. In short, conditions restricting supervised offenders from accessing social media in the future will likely have to be narrowly drawn and related to the offender. For instance, one’s status as a supervised sex offender will not alone be enough to trigger the restriction. They might actually have to had to been convicted or have a history of abusing social media to commit a crime. Even then, they might not be totally restricted from accessing social media. For instance, they may be granted permission subject to monitoring of their profiles and/or Internet/computer use. This decision will likely make any total Internet restriction for probation/parole cases harder to justify. Look for more conditions that allow Internet use but only with some kind of monitoring.

The interesting thing here is Facebook has a policy that prohibits sex offenders from using their site. This case does not force Facebook to allow sex offenders on their site. It only struck down North Carolina’s statute criminalizing the access of any social media site by sex offenders. Will Facebook change their policy? Why should they? My guess is no. But I have been wrong before. Also, I don’t’ think the case will not have any impact on Facebook’s policy concerning inmates using their site, which it recently mitigated somewhat.

My question is why don’t legislatures just focus on increasing the penalties for sex offenders who use certain high tech tools to victimize others? For instance, adding a mandatory criminal penalty for any person that uses social media to victimize another. That would not restrict anyone from accessing social media. It would just criminalize or increase the penalty for using it as a tool to victimize others.

This case will require officers to justify their conditions. It will not, however be the end to conditions governing how offenders access the Internet while on supervision. I see more monitoring and more use of searches. Additionally, officers may now have to check profiles to see who supervised sex offenders may be “friending” to insure there are no future victims. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there!

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HELP: A Pokémon Is After Me!

August 25th, 2016

I am not sure if any of you have witnessed the recent craze that started in July called Pokémon GO, which has individuals using their Smart Phones to search and capture imaginary creatures in the real world. No I am not making this up.  Some are forecasting a “flood” of more games to come, capitalizing on this concept which is more specifically referred to as augmented reality gaming. As with any new technological development, there can be a dark side, which has already been exploited by those who look to victimize others.

Before delving into this discussion, let me first explain a little further about Pokémon Go. The game is aimed at players age 10 and up and at least initially the developers did not see fit to put perimeters on where the “creatures” could be located. Individuals were finding the creatures in clearly inappropriate places for children playing a game, such as The Holocaust Museum, funeral homes, and adult themed stores.

Not long after game was released, a NY state senator expressed concern that the game could be used by “higher-level sex offenders” to gain access to children.  The senator observed an informal investigation revealed 57 Pokémon creatures were located near 100 addresses of registered sex offenders across New York City.  The senator advocated and apparently obtained earlier  this week a parole condition for MOST sex offenders in NY that reflects:

“I understand that I shall not download, access, or otherwise engage in any internet-enabled gaming activities to include Pokémon Go.”

I find this very interesting. I have long stressed that Internet gaming held the potential for sex offenders to engage in grooming activities and therefore was an appropriate supervision prohibition. After all playing a game does not educate or help someone get employment.  However, I tended to focus on games children victims would most likely be playing. Children are the ones who are the grooming targets of pedophiles. However, the prohibition reflects “any Internet-enabled gaming.” That clearly applies to Pokémon Go. But does it also apply to online Chess and games less likely to be played by children? A more specific example is the American Association of Retired Persons, which has games for the over 50 crowd to play.   Is an elderly, maybe disabled  sex offender under supervision in NY now prohibited from this activity? There is a real potential to widen the net here beyond what is needed.

One thing that kind of dropped by the wayside was a recommendation by this same senator to require these game developers to exclude locations where registered sex offenders reside. The state of NY has a shown a willingness to share sex offender registration information for such purposes. Gee, that would exclude a much larger sex offender population then just those under parole supervision.  I think though from a developers’ standpoint it may make it bit more challenging to have these augmented reality games function in large areas that are off limits due to sex offenders in the community. (Yes, people, not all sex offenders are in prison and they do live in our communities.)

I mean, what is the acceptable distance from a sex offender and Pokémon creature, 100 feet, or like school restrictions, a 1,000 to 2,000 feet from the sex offender’s residence? Additionally sex offenders are allowed to move, which requires them to update their registration. This would require the gaming company to periodically update their “exclusion zones.” At a minimum this might require a monthly reconciliation but more likely a weekly update to make sure the zones are properly excluded. Also, people we are just taking about keeping the residences of sex offenders off the gaming zones. What about where they work or go to school? This information is also part of the registration. Should the gaming grid also exclude these locations to make sure kids are safe? Maybe from a developer’s standpoint, they hold no responsibility to make sure the players are safe. That is up to the Government, right?

The Government only has control over those who are currently under supervision. Many sex offenders aren’t on supervision. Additionally, there are obviously those who have absconded and are wanted. No parent should throw caution to the wind because there are parole conditions that prohibit supervised sex offenders from using these games.  Allowing their children to run free, unsupervised, and possibly alone, while playing Pokémon Go or any other augmented reality game is asking for trouble.

By the way, to date the biggest offender group to exploit Pokémon Go, appears not to be in the sex offender population. At a minimum there have been reports in California, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, Maryland, and Texas where adults playing this game have been robbed at gun point. (I found maybe two examples of sex offenders missing using this particular gaming application) Basically, victims find themselves distracted by the game, in areas they probably should not be in, during times when they should be there. It doesn’t help that they are holding expensive electronic devices in the open.  Should we start barring parolees who committed robbery from playing these games too? Maybe they should not be in the close vacancy of a Pokémon creature.

It seems we need to do a better job of balancing these parole restrictions to the risk and tailored to the needs of the case.  Additionally, it probably is appropriate to require software/gaming companies to develop products that minimize the potential for harm to users.  For starters they should focus on game grids in the real world that are as free from risk areas as possible and where law enforcement regularly patrols. They should also have built in controls that prohibit any users from adding creatures or game tokens to locations that have not been approved.  They might also consider requiring users that are given such powers to be properly vetted. Finally, we as consumers, either as individuals or parents need to start thinking about how we are ultimately responsible for our own safety  and that of our loved ones and quit relying solely on the private sector and Government to make us safe.  On that note, I left a cigar lit somewhere (Hopefully some stray Pokémon hasn’t taken off with it.). Be safe out there!

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Thank You American Probation and Parole Association!

December 18th, 2012

I got notified today that the American Probation and Parole Association is giving me the 2013 Sam Houston University Award. This award is presented to an individual who has published an article concerning probation, parole or community corrections, which provides new information and insight into the operation, effectiveness or future of the community corrections profession. They noted… “Not only have you published an article, you have been prolific in the number of articles you have published.” Most if not all of the stuff I have written this year has been on cybercrime. It has been a good day!

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