An EZ-Pass System for Offenders

New York uses an ATM-like kiosk to track probationers.

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Checking in with an automated probation system in New York.

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Here's how probation once worked in New York City. The offender would report to an overworked officer who may have handled 250 other cases. The officer filled out a paper form that would find its way into a file cabinet in an office never again to see the light of day. "It was a joke," says one former probation officer. "It served neither probationers nor public safety."

In the mid-1990s, faced with shrinking budgets and cuts in staffing, the city began installing a series of kiosks to manage the lowest-risk offenders on probation, expanded to include all low-risk probationers in 2003. (High-risk probationers and sex offenders are still required to deal with officers directly.) Offenders from publicist Lizzie Grubman to rapper Jay-Z, along with thousands of other petty criminals, have reported to the automated kiosks, says Jane Imbasciani, assistant commissioner in the department of probation. Meanwhile, cities in Georgia, Florida, Minnesota, and Illinois have installed similar systems.

The kiosks, which resemble ATMs, ask offenders to scan their hands and respond to some basic questions about their residence, job, and contact with police. The process takes about three minutes. A computer randomly selects users for drug testing, conducted in a small anteroom. "It frees up officers to focus on the more dangerous people, it frees up money, and, frankly, the machines are far better at record keeping," says Department of Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn. The computers also allow officers to track probationers' movements through the computerized self-reporting system, matching crime rates to probationer residency patterns and helping police focus resources. Moreover, in a blow to those who champion stricter sentences for petty crimes, statistics show that some probationers are less likely to commit another crime if their contact with probation officers is minimal.