Riverside County Probation Department recently completed a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test the use of text messaging to communicate with probationers. Division Director Rudy Lovato and Deputy Probation Officer Jose Valdez discuss trial challenges, how the data made a department-wide impact, and surprise results that changed the way probation officers communicate with their clients.
Tell us about the trial and your role in it.
Jose I’m a Deputy Probation Officer (PO) for Riverside County assigned to a specialty caseload. The Bridge Program was created to assist a small group of low level young offenders who have yet to be indoctrinated into the criminal justice system. At the time, I was one of the few Deputy Probation Officers who was issued a smart phone; the idea was to make it easier for these young offenders to communicate with their Probation Office. I was to split my case load in half— half would send/receive text messages while the other half could only call.
Rudy: I’m the division director over our adult services division. When BetaGov presented the opportunity to conduct a trial, my division was interested in measuring the effectiveness of utilizing a smart phone to communicate with our clients. We utilized our Bridge Program that serves a population of youthful offenders between the ages of 18-24 years old. Deputy Probation Officer Jose Valdez supervised the caseload and conducted the actual study and collected the results for the trial.
What were some of the challenges you encountered with your trial, and how did you overcome them?
Rudy: Our division previously implemented the use of a smart phone on another caseload. We were interested in studying the benefits of utilizing a smart phone as a supervision tool. We believed the smart phone would improve communication between the probation officer and the client. We had already introduced use of the smart phone to all clients but we didn’t have a control group for the study. During this time we had just provided our Bridge Program PO Jose Valdez a smart phone so we used the Bridge Program for the RCT. The limitation with the Bridge Program is that the caseload only has 15 clients which is a small population.
Jose: There were some issues during the text message trial; some of the clients had challenges maintaining their cell phone service. Communication between the client and the probation officer is very important; consequently, a break in communication raises concerns and often leads to a violation of probation. Most of my clients live within a reasonable distance from the office; therefore, I was able to drive out to their address and check on them. Another option was to call their family or friends to forward a message directing the client to call me. Surprisingly, another method used by clients to make contact with me when their cell phone was not in service was to communicate via email. I’m used to communicating via email with colleagues but not used to emailing with clients. Email proved to be very useful in overcoming this barrier. Consequently, I’m taking advantage of my smart phone and the email and text options to communicate with my clients. This affords me the opportunity to leave the office and still be available to communicate, schedule appointments, and respond to my clients.
Did the results surprise you?
Jose: I expected the clients who were able to text message to be more compliant but I could not quantify the results. Those who were able to communicate via text messaging showed an increase in compliance. I believe it was due to text message reminders of school appointments, program appointments, or schedule changes. Furthermore, being able to text message made it easier for clients to reach out to me and address concerns; in turn, we saw increased compliance.
What impact has your trial had on the policies and practices at your department?
Rudy: Since the trial was conducted our department has implemented smart phones department-wide. We knew the smart phones were effective and the trial confirmed our beliefs. I think this would be a great thing to take a look at department-wide to see how effective it is with regard to client engagement.
Jose: After completion of the trial the department issued smart phones department wide. It was well received since it allowed officers to be in the field and have access to email and contacts, and to communicate with their clients via text or call.
How has running your own RCT influenced the way you think about innovating in the public sector?
Jose: I believe as part of the growth process, we have to look at ways to become more efficient and effective in reaching out to our clients. Surprisingly, I realized email worked for one of my clients when they did not have the ability to call or text. This reinforced the idea that technology can bridge the gap between various barriers.
Rudy: As a department, we’re always trying to look for ways to enhance the services we provide to our clients, and we had been looking for ways to incorporate technology. In my division, we found that any way we can engage the client and communicate with them is always beneficial. We’ve had people come in and provide a dirty drug test and tell their PO they were clean in the office, but then afterward, they sent a text to the PO and tell them that they didn’t want to confess in person. People have a hard time saying it directly to their PO but they’re a lot more comfortable to send a text message. It’s kind of like talking to your parent and not wanting to disappoint them in person.
How did you collect data throughout the trial?
Jose: I created a spreadsheet with my client’s information and separated them into two categories. I kept track of their scheduled office appointments, program appointments, and how often they rescheduled or failed to report.
Do you feel the trial results were worth the effort to conduct an RCT?
Jose: I believe the efforts made during the trial were worth it; the client’s compliance went up which means they made it to their treatment, school, or scheduled appointment. In the long run this will help reduce the recidivism rate because we have helped a person acquire the tools needed to help themselves.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to run their own RCT?
Jose: I would recommend choosing an assignment with a large group of clients; this will give you more information and more valid results. I would also recommend planning on potential barriers and coming up with creative methods of overcoming them.