An App to Turn an Ex-Con's Phone Into 'Little Brother'

“Catch and release and catch” is how Oregon’s chief federal judge describes the U.S. system of criminal justice.

Ann Aiken, on the bench for 16 years, grew tired of sentencing the same people again and again, sometimes for failing drug tests required under supervised release. A few “dirty UAs,” or bad urinalysis screens, and the offenders were right back in federal prison—costing taxpayers $29,000 a year.

There may soon be an app for that.

Aiken is teaming with researchers and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a smartphone-based app to be issued to Oregon probationers. It would have buttons tailored to just what some ex-convicts need, such as links to housing assistance, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or medical clinics. A “crisis” button would send help immediately. Aiken envisions it working two ways: during check-ins that court officers could also confirm and through GPS and video, showing where participants are and whether they look intoxicated.

Many probationers already have Big Brother chained to their ankles, Aiken says, referring to monitoring bracelets. She’s pitching her software idea under the name “Little Brother.”

The partnership with MIT came together at a February “hackathon” in New York, where Aiken presented her idea to an audience of programmers and legal researchers. A contingent from MIT’s Media Lab was intrigued and worked up a mockup during the weekend event, says Lina Kaisey, an intern in the lab and a Harvard Law School student. The group plans to design a more complete prototype this summer and roll it out to participants in Oregon’s Reentry Court, perhaps with other jurisdictions joining a pilot program.

The court itself is somewhat experimental, started by Aiken’s district in 2005 after an explosion of methamphetamine cases clogged dockets. More than 70 percent of offenders under supervision either had a history of drug abuse or had committed a drug-related crime.

Participants in the Reentry Court waive some of their due-process rights to report to a judge who’s more like a sponsor, encouraging them to get clean and stay employed. Offenders can leave supervision early after a year of sobriety. It might sound soft, but Aiken says such programs have shown results: a 16 percent reduction in recidivism when surveillance is coupled with tailored treatment. Dozens of similar courts now exist across the U.S.

Privacy concerns must be sorted out, such as how and when monitoring would happen. “It shouldn’t feel in a sense like there’s a narc in your pocket,” says Dazza Greenwood, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab. Developers want to create a device that also gives participants insight into data the government collects on them, such as drug-test results. An app, he adds, “may actually be in some ways less intrusive than a probation officer showing up at your house.”

Aiken, the judge, says her hope is that the software can also help ex-cons avoid recidivism by putting more tools and resources in their pockets. ”We can’t keep dropping people back into the community and just hoping they’ll be successful,” she says.

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