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Identifying Technology Needs and Innovations to Advance Corrections
By Jack Harne, National Institute of Justice
Published: 02/05/2018

Computer network cable scaled NIJ and a team led by the RAND​ Corporation are examining how technology could help corrections agencies relieve staff and facility limitations and improve training, policies, and practices.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world: Nearly one out of every 100 adults is in prison or jail, and one out of every 50 adults is on probation or parole [1].

The corrections field faces significant challenges. For one, the demographics of those incarcerated have changed in recent years. Today, the U.S. prison population is aging and includes both a greater proportion of women and more individuals with mental health conditions and disabilities [2]. All of these demographic changes strain agencies’ ability to deliver services and facilities. The number of people under supervision is also increasing, and community corrections agencies are struggling to provide the level of supervision and immediacy needed to help them successfully re-enter the community. Compounding this is a shift in probation caseloads: Officers who once dealt with relatively low-risk individuals who posed little threat to public safety and had few criminogenic needs now manage higher-risk people who pose a greater threat and may require additional services and increased supervision. Finally, recruiting, training, and retaining corrections staff with the appropriate skills remains extremely difficult. (See sidebar, “Reducing Mortality in Correctional Facilities,” on page 6.)

Technology has the potential to help address these challenges, at least in part. For example, mobile device apps might allow officers to better supervise individuals on parole or probation and enable those under supervision to better access services and programs. Telepresence technology, such as telemedicine and video visitation, could improvehealth care delivery and increase educational and visitation opportunities for people under supervision. (See sidebar, “Expediting Pretrial Release Hearings,” on page 4.)

NIJ and a team led by the RAND Corporation are collaborating to identify these types of technology needs and innovative solutions for law enforcement, courts, and corrections agencies, as part of the RAND Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative. RAND’s research team includes RTI International, the University of Denver, and the Police Executive Research Forum. Together, these groups are holistically examining how technology could help not only mitigate staff or facility limitations but also improve training and organizational policies and practices.

The team’s approach involves a mixed-method process. The team begins with an extensive literature review on current and emerging challenges in law enforcement, courts, and corrections and on potential solutions to those challenges. It looks at various sources, including existing literature and analysis, research partners’ studies, media reports, publications, conference presentations, and surveys and statistical data. Next, the team engages in structured brainstorming with practitioners to further elaborate on challenges and potential solutions. Then, through structured, small-group discussions that use RAND’s Delphi method [3], the team prioritizes the needs and potential solutions.

Researchers, advocacy organizations, manufacturers, and other stakeholders participate in the discussions. But the practitioner is the foundation. Practitioners, such as corrections officers, provide unique insights into how technology can address crime and justice challenges, insights developed from years of dealing with those challenges every day. The team is currently developing a web-based platform that will allow a broader community of practitioners to participate in identifying and prioritizing solutions.

Identifying Corrections Technology Needs

In 2015, RAND published Fostering Innovation in Community and Institutional Corrections: Identifying High-Priority Technology and Other Needs for the U.S. Corrections Sector. This report presents findings and recommendations from the team’s initial literature review of challenges and opportunities in the corrections sector. The report also details how a 25-member expert panel prioritized the needs and potential opportunities [4].

Panel members were divided into two working groups: one for community corrections and one for institutional corrections. Each group worked through a structured needs-generation process that included two sets of facilitated discussions. The first set identified problems and opportunities for corrections, and the second framed the needs that would contribute to addressing each problem.

The panel identified more than 200 needs, then systematically ranked and prioritized them based on each member’s assessment of whether the need contributed to accomplishing eight policy goals:
  • Facilitating positive behavioral change.
  • Protecting the rights of victims/restitution.
  • Holding offenders accountable.
  • Protecting the public.
  • Saving money or time.
  • Improving correctional competencies.
  • Improving officer and detainee health.
  • Reducing officer and detainee injuries.
Click here to view the full report.

The resulting set of needs provides a menu of innovative options for addressing key problems or capitalizing on emerging opportunities in corrections.

The preceding article was reprinted from NIJ Journal No. 278.

Jack Harne is a physical scientist in NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology.


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