For those who think technology provides some level of salvation for the criminal justice system, there’s a pull to speak to the things it can do that make the wheels turn better, faster, more reliably, than they did when it was humans with pencils running the show. And indeed, these claims are absolutely valid. When tech works.
A computer error is being blamed for wrongly accusing hundreds of people of skipping court-ordered drug tests, subjecting them to potential penalties including fines and jail time.
Jail Alternatives for Michigan Services, known as JAMS, is metro Detroit’s largest provider of court-ordered drug testing. The company experienced the issue in late August, but apparently didn’t notice it until Dana O’Neal of Oakland County pre-trial services called to ask why no positive test results had been submitted in recent weeks, said Barbara Hankey, manager of Oakland County Community Corrections.
Oops. It seems that instead of providing test results to pre-trial services, JAMS was sending notices that people failed to appear for drug-testing, a violation of the terms of their release. These notices, in turn, would produce warrants for the arrest of the people who failed to show, which would result in their incarceration and notation on their rap sheet that they can’t be trusted to be released. This is serious stuff.
And nobody at JAMS knew, or at least admitted to knowing, that their system failed. It took a pre-trial services officer to notice that, “hey, why no drug reports all of a sudden?” Not that there is any basis to assume this, but I can picture O’Neal calling JAMS to ask, getting some customer service rep on the phone, who mumbles something about policy and apologizes for the inconvenience.
O’Neal on Thursday sent a notice out to judges across Oakland County alerting them that between Aug. 26, and Sept. 11, “the JAMS drug and alcohol testing agency experienced a software issue resulting in false reports of no-show tests.”
“As a result, failure to appear notifications were sent by our department for tests that were actually completed.” O’Neal wrote in the notice.
Think of the defendants on pre-trial release receiving notifications of their failure to appear, with the dire consequences in bold letters, trying to get someone on the phone to believe that they did appear, they did submit to the test, they don’t take drugs, and they aren’t scum. What could possibly go wrong?
But many defendants count on JAMS and other testing agencies to inform the court properly of their test results. They don’t necessarily get a receipt showing every test they took, said Robert Larin, a long-time defense attorney and expert in drunken-driving law.
“They’ll require someone to prove that he took a test and that might be impossible for the defendant to prove,” Larin said. “Most judges have common sense. But there are some who don’t.”
The courts aren’t very good at handling technology. Heck, the government sucks at it. Remember our old pal Obamacare, and the gazillions of dollars
wasted spent by our government to get its website up and running so that the magic could happen? Or the joys of PACER, which was ten years behind the technological times on the day it opened for business. And has remained there ever since.
So, the government wisely outsources many of its ancillary services, which includes much of its tech either independently or tangentially to other services it requires, like drug testing, and thereupon blindly assumes that its subcontractor is fulfilling its contract, performing its functions with care and total reliability.
Why shouldn’t it? After all, putting the work in someone else’s hands, paying through the nose for it with all the money saved from not having to pay public defenders, and, boom!, problem solved.
Except outside vendors can have glitches too. And outside vendors are fail miserably. And outside vendors have a vested interest in not noticing, if not actively concealing, their failures because that could prevent it from getting payments, the next new contract with a price increase, mo’ money. Nothing good comes from alerting the legal system that you just completely blew the job upon which the system relies.
Troy District Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig said that drug-testing agencies are largely unregulated and judges must scrutinize their results. Several months ago, she stopped allowing defendants in her court to use JAMS because of inaccurate reports.
“This problem is not just JAMS,” she said. “This is the underbelly of the criminal justice system.”
Unregulated? How is that possible, you may ask? Before you get all twisted, let’s not make more of this than it is. If they were fully, totally regulated, like say, the FBI forensic lab, would that guarantee that failure and corruption couldn’t happen? Regulation is palliative, making us (and judges) feel an unwarranted sense of confidence. It no more assures quality, no less the absence of failure, than anything else.
But when one comes to grips with how much of our legal system is dependent on the nice folks who program technology, and their own inherent belief that zeroes and ones are doing God’s work, it becomes clear how much opportunity for disastrous failure is built into the system. If it’s a moving part, it can fail.
Despite this, what is almost never built into the system (and sys devs will tell me I’m so totally wrong about this, because they would never, NEVER!, let this happen), is an adequate fail-safe to protect against system failure, to catch it in time, to save the lives of the poor schmucks forced to live under their binary regime.
As for any defendant taken into custody because JAMS mistakenly notified the court that the druggie failed to pee into a cup, they’re surely sorry for the inconvenience. What more do you want?
H/T Jill McMahon