Many advocates of criminal justice reform describe their ideas as ones that would modernize the justice system, or bring it into the 21st century. Nowhere is that description more apt than when considering how to use computers to accomplish things that would normally be done by people. Using technology instead of people can be cheaper and sometimes even more effective. But while it makes sense to automate some interactions, there are others that require the human element – even if that costs more.

One example of technology used well is the Matterhorn Court Innovations project. This tool allows courts to deal with high volumes of civil infractions and disputed tickets online. These types of interactions need resolution, but they don’t necessarily involve legal representation, so courts can allow the Matterhorn platform to “talk” to the defendant and to the court’s internal case management system to retrieve details about each individual’s case. This saves time for both defendants and court employees.

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Jason Tashea is the founder of Justice Codes, an organization that worked with the University of Michigan Law School to pilot the Matterhorn project in courts around the country. He says that it’s already had success in Michigan. In Washtenaw County, the average duration of an informal hearing —where traffic tickets are typically disputed — dropped from 157 minutes to 27 minutes. In Grand Rapids, police had to make 550 fewer arrests of people with an outstanding warrant. That’s because an online system made it easier for those individuals to resolve the underlying issue that led to their warrant. This saved over 2,500 hours for personnel in law enforcement, courts and corrections.

Tashea hopes that Matterhorn will do more than just save time, however. He points out that when courts use it to set payments for court fines and victim restitution, “People are not only paying what’s owed to the court quicker, they are more likely to pay in full.” This is good news for the financial state of judicial districts in Michigan and elsewhere. Although Tashea is not currently operating a Matterhorn project, he believes this technology could be adapted to improve access to justice in rural areas where people have a harder time getting to court.

But there’s another emerging technology that might not be so good for the justice system: video visitation. Many courts have moved to videoconferencing technology so that they can hold brief hearings with jail inmates without requiring jail staff to undergo the time-consuming and risky process of transporting inmates to court. That makes sense. But now, about 650 prisons and jails around the U.S., including a few in Michigan, have started to use phones and cameras in place of in-person visits for people serving time.

While some jails and prisons make this technology available so that friends and relatives don’t have to travel long distances to communicate with their inmate, about three-quarters of the facilities have eliminated in-person visitation altogether. Corrections officials in Jackson, Michigan, cite concerns about the cost of making staffers available to supervise the visits and the risk that outsiders will smuggle contraband into the facilities. But opponents of this practice counter that the companies who provide this technology often require jails and prisons to eliminate in-person visitation as part of their contract. They add that some facilities charge up to a dollar per minute, which is prohibitively expensive for low-income people, and that the audio and video quality can be very poor or prone to glitches. But, fundamentally, they say that the human costs of replacing visits with video calls are just too high.

They are probably right. There is a certain amount of deprivation and hardship that we expect jail inmates and prisoners to experience during incarceration, and we count that as the consequence of their behavior. If someone poses a threat to our society, we will remove him from our society. The natural result is that he will suffer the loss of his daily interactions with his neighbors, friends and family. But the fact remains that the vast majority of people we imprison in Michigan will return to society eventually. And when they return, we hope that they will reintegrate productively into the mainstream economy and conscientiously into their families and communities. If we wish to turn that hope into a reasonable expectation, we need a big-picture perspective.

We must weigh the long-term benefits of a $5 video visitation fee now against the value of having an inmate share a physical space with someone to whom he has a responsibility, someone with expectations for his future. The impact of these visits on an inmate’s behavior and well-being have been observed and even quantified (one study suggests they lower recidivism). But even if their benefits can’t be quantified, they’d be worth allowing anyway. Ours is a society founded on civic virtue and family-fostered individual responsibility. These are things that, if we can encourage, we should – even for inmates.


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