By Jessy Nations
At the risk of sounding older than my years, it seems we are now demanding an app for everything these days. Even when we don’t need or want an app for something, one inevitably appears. That is, except, for legal apps, which are notably absent from the app store. Sure, I can download a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary, and Google is more than happy to direct me to lawyers in my area, but last I checked the smartphone revolution hadn’t done much for the criminal justice system … for now.
However, in an effort to modernize the reentry process for former inmates, a group of developers, lawyers, and judges are working on a reentry app . The idea is to turn the justice system from Big Brother into little brother. “Catch and release and catch,” is how Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the District of Oregon, describes our current system. To help with this, Judge Aiken is trying to put together a program that would get former inmates all the resources they need to reenter society; all while at the touch of a screen.
Reentry court, which is a new approach to helping inmates reenter society and is the idea behind the reentry app, is as experimental as the app itself. In reentry court, certain nonviolent offenders waive some of their due process rights in exchange for submitting to the supervision of a judge. The judge acts more like a social worker than an adjudicator, helping participants to stay clean and sober, find and keep employment, obtain stable housing, and gain access to necessary mental health services. Most judges form support groups made of reentry participants to allow them to help one another through a sometimes difficult process. “You can’t incarcerate away drug problems,” says Judge Aiken. “My goal is to teach individuals under federal supervision that asking for help is a sign of maturity. If they think they’re going to use drugs” Aiken says the app “is a safe way to reach out for help.”
An early version of the reentry app was submitted to the 2014 Hackcess to Justice competition. Judge Aiken is hopeful that the app will allow former inmates to have greater access to their support network and court mandated drug testing in a less invasive way than dealing directly with a parole officer. “An ankle bracelet can’t remind an individual to take their meds or when to go to court. It can’t refer them to a crisis line,” says Mike Kingery, one of the lead developers.
To use the app and ensure sincere compliance, participants in the reentry program must blow into a breathalyzer on video, where password system helps to prevent people from using pre-recorded videos. The app can also locate nearby housing shelters, and provides contact information for other participants in the user’s reentry group to provide an easily accessible support network.
What’s more, putting reentry services on a phone allows former inmates a degree of autonomy and dignity that simply does not exist when they have to constantly report to a parole officer. An officer sometimes are punitive, restrictive, and remind you that you are an offender of the law. It’s hard to find a more concrete example of Big Brother. On the other hand, a phone is helpful, inconspicuous, and literally puts the reentry process in the palm of your hands. It’s the little brother helping you get your life back in order. The app does all this while also providing active GPS monitoring and blood alcohol monitoring. It’s a remarkable compromise between the social need to monitor former criminals and a desire to rehabilitate by helping participants stay clean, safe, and supported. It even gamifies the reentry process by awarding incentive points for keeping up with the court mandated check ins.
While criminal justice reform is a daunting and sometimes disheartening subject, ideas like this offer a small glimmer of hope that the old system is moving forward. Reentry programs are rare examples of the courts trying to move forward into the contemporary world. You can find out more about the reentry app at the Outreach Smartphone Monitoring website here.