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Judge: Let's make apps for ex-cons

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This is Rachel M. Zahorsky’s last Law Scribbler column. The column is going on a temporary hiatus.

Last spring, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken stood before a crowd of nearly 500 legal tech and software gurus and gave them a problem to solve: Build a smartphone app that will support the success of inmates released from prison.

With the justice system crippled by budget cuts, she is looking to private-public partnerships for cost-effective, strategic solutions to reduce recidivism.

“When you intensely supervise people in the community, you need a smartphone app or an iteration of that to give people coming out of prison resources—for example, a way they can hit a button and find a place to stay for the night,” says Aiken, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, about her mission.

“With GPS, [parole officers] could determine if a person is actually where they say they are. Video would allow them to generally determine if someone was intoxicated. This would be an interactive way to supervise people,” Aiken continues. “Home visits are important,” but with an app, supervisors could respond at a moment’s notice.

Aiken says courts need to target funding for initiatives that can adapt to the local needs of communities and keep probation officers engaged with parolees.

“I’d like to change the culture for judges and have them competing for how many of their people are able to succeed,” she says. “And ensure that we fund the courts that are making a difference and getting people back into their communities. Those courts should be given funds to look at the next strategies and use [research and development] techniques to do that.”

Aiken cautions that tech resources need to be easy to implement and to use—two traits that dominate apps.

“If you’re trying to reinvent the law, you have to remember that real people are involved and they aren’t necessarily tech-savvy,” she says. “However, by teaching them how to use technology, we can help them catch up with the outside world.”

“When I got here, judges were proud they were No. 2 pencil-type people. Now 60 percent of [them use] iPads,” Aiken says. “We need to be the nexus between where things have been and where they are going.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Judge: Let’s make apps for ex-cons.”

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