While Alcatraz is now a tourist attraction, the nearby San Quentin prison remains the nation’s oldest prison, having been built in 1854. Of course, prisons can be renovated, but the criminal justice system is too often stuck in the past — including when it comes to technology.
Now, the current coronavirus epidemic has placed a premium on the ability of many government systems to find alternatives to unnecessary in-person interactions. This brings into sharp relief the need to better utilize technology in our criminal justice system.
Fortunately, many jurisdictions are demonstrating that there are many ways to use technology to reduce the spread of the coronavirus while still ensuring due process and public safety.
First, entrance into the criminal justice system often begins with arrest. In 2007, Texas became a pioneer by enacting a cite and summons law, allowing police to issue tickets instead of making an arrest for many nonviolent misdemeanors, such as marijuana possession and driving with an invalid license. Implemented on a wider scale for nondangerous offenders, this could help prevent the spread of disease.
However, only a handful of counties have implemented this policy, partly because not every officer is equipped with the technological capacity to generate a ticket that has a court appearance date on it. Nonetheless, the current crisis has caused police agencies from Racine, Wisconsin, to Fort Worth, Texas, to discontinue arrests for minor misdemeanors.
Once individuals are arrested and booked into jails, which are potential petri dishes for the spread of viruses and bacterial infections, technology can also play a major role in ensuring they do not stay longer than necessary. Unfortunately, the first order of business in most jails is stripping the person of their cellphone. While this is often necessary for security, this means they may not have access to phone numbers of the family and friends who could help them bail out of jail. Allowing pretrial defendants to retrieve these numbers while being observed is hardly unreasonable.
Technology can also play a major role in ensuring more pretrial defendants can be safely supervised in the community. For example, effective text messaging alerts that not only remind people of their court dates but provide advice on how to get there, such as using public transportation, have reduced failures to appear by 26%.
Yet another exciting use of technology in the pretrial context are phone applications that allow pretrial defendants to request to reschedule their court date.
Traditionally, pretrial defendants are required to file a motion to reschedule, even though many facing misdemeanor charges do not even have an attorney. Research has found most pretrial defendants who miss a court date do so not because they are absconding, but because they are sick, lack transportation, lack child care, or for other understandable reasons. By providing an alternative that is accessible around the clock in such genuine cases, the system can better focus on issuing warrants and tracking down those who are true absconders, particularly defendants who pose an urgent threat to public safety.
Of course, this is also a good time to assess the extent to which all hearings must be held in-person. Defendants have a sacrosanct constitutional right to confront their accuser at trial, but trials are very rare in the modern criminal justice system. Many court hearings are status conferences that could be handled through commonplace virtual meeting applications.
At the back end of the system, technology can also play an important role.
For example, in Louisiana, Judge Scott Schlegel has achieved success in reducing recidivism and promoting employment through a reentry court that relies heavily on innovation. The court’s website, developed in partnership with leading tech companies, provides important resources for participants, including a 24/7 chat service with case managers, calendar, and a system that creates phone reminders for appointments such as drug testing and class attendance.
This “Smart Supervision Platform” also allows health and social service agencies to access appropriate information, allowing for the leveraging of existing resources that are often dispersed across government and non-profit providers.
While no part of our society was fully prepared for the current crisis, the machinery of the criminal justice system faces unique challenges given its traditional technological limitations. However, the system need not be handcuffed to the past. Instead, this challenging time presents an opportunity to replicate successful innovations in many jurisdictions to chart a future that ensures access to justice is as safe and expeditious as possible for all involved.