Salt Lake County works to help residents succeed with probation and pretrial supervision
Too many clients, too little time
Michael is on probation. He says it’s difficult to check in with his case manager Kristina beyond his monthly appointments. “She’s super busy with appointments scheduled on top of each other. Someone always walks out when I’m walking in for my appointment.” He knows he can always call, but she can’t answer when she’s meeting with a client.
Kristina and other case managers who help people through their probation are busy. In Salt Lake County, the 22 probation case managers juggle an average of about 85 clients, trying to check in with each once or twice a month. Pretrial case managers average 110 clients at a time. Clients are often dealing with other things like moving around; changing addresses & phone numbers makes it hard to stay in touch. Stakes are high – if they don’t comply with probation, they may go to jail.
For some people on probation or pretrial supervision, reminders about appointments are helpful. Previously, reminders were in-person at their meetings, or calls when case managers had time. The fellowship team started by taking inspiration from the CourtBot project from Code for America’s 2014 Fellowship in Atlanta. CourtBot sends text message reminders about court dates, and tells people about the option to pay tickets online.
The first step: solve Michael's problem. Next: everyone else.
Michael has part-time temporary work, but it can’t be scheduled around the classes that are required for his probation. When his requirements are incompatible, Michael wants to let Kristina know he’s trying, but hit a challenge. He doesn’t want to wait for his monthly appointment or let her hear it from someone else.
The Salt Lake fellows saw early on that there was a need for more than one-way reminders.
The challenge of easily staying in touch led the fellows to build ClientComm. ClientComm lets case managers send clients text messages from their computers. Conversations are kept together even if the client changes phone numbers.
Case managers struggle to communicate with clients because they don’t have many options for communications methods. "I've had clients try to text me but my work phone doesn't have that capability," said one Therapist in Criminal Justice Services (CJS). Limits on the ways case managers can connect with their clients can be a big pain point.
It’s also important for CJS employees to have flexibility. As one case manager said, "every client comes with a different kind of need. You treat each one in a separate way ... some that need more encouragement, some that need more guidance." Working with individual people goes better when case managers can customize to the client’s needs and lives.
To learn about the challenges that case managers and clients deal with, the team spoke with CJS staff, both pretrial and probation clients, and people who have been through the justice system and are dealing with the added challenge of homelessness. They also led workshops with CJS to understand more about the system and identify ways to improve it.
Instead of making a big plan of every feature they might build, the fellows are letting case managers use the basic tool. As they use ClientComm, they come up with ideas to make it better.
“It’s like building the armature before you put the clay on the sculpture,” says Hammond Chamberlain, who supervises case managers in Salt Lake County.
Ideas on how to make ClientComm better are already coming in from case managers. For example, case managers would like to see clients in alphabetical order and get notifications of new texts from clients.
Case manager Kenia raised the issue of highlighting the current phone number for a client. “When a client changes numbers or gets disconnected, I don’t want to text sensitive information to a random person.”
Hammond thinks other departments could use ClientComm in the future. “It’s built to fit the needs of probation and everyone in Criminal Justice Services. We all have clients to reach out to, and things to remind them of.”