Then Came The Glitch

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.

Until it doesn’t.

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

19 thoughts on “Then Came The Glitch

  1. REvers

    I’m disappointed in you. You had a perfect opportunity for a “Kick out the JAMS!” reference and you blew it.

    Maybe you should link to an MC5 video as penance.

  2. sburch79

    I was a software engineer for about 10 years working almost exclusive on government contracts. The problem isn’t always the contractor (though they can be), but the government can cause the issues itself. The number of hours we were allowed to spend testing the software was regulated by our client (we were on a cost plus contract). The government was okay with only the common use-cases being tested. Its thought was that it would rather have new feature B than ensure that existing feature A worked in cases that it may never encounter. For the software we were writing that system worked. If a error was encountered, we could easily fix it and send over an update.

    However, I worked with other developers who had written software for the space shuttle. Simple tasks took weeks to implement. Every change went through multiple reviews and meetings. But, when it was complete, it worked for every potential use-case. It had to. That said, it was exponentially more expensive to develop.

    When government bids out complex software systems to the lowest bidder, the software company that tests for every use-case will lose every time. If government wants higher quality software, it can get it. It just has to be willing to pay more for it. Sadly, I doubt accidentally throwing people in jail is enough of an incentive to get them to spend more.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        As sburch79 points out, mistakes can (and will!) happen at any level, and as you point out, it doesn’t really matter where or why they occurred.

        Working with people who cannot grasp this usually pisses me off in a major way, which is one of the reasons I gravitated towards working for chip companies rather than software companies. There were many times in software companies where I would describe a potentially problematic sequence, and the response was, quite literally, “What are the chances of that happening?” and the response to that was usually unprintable, but usually had the words “probability approaches one as it becomes more widely deployed.” I hate shipping buggy stuff, which is why I’m here and Bill Gates is where he is.

        Chip companies that have been around the block a few times are different. When a tapeout can take over a year, dozens to hundreds of man-years, and then a million and a half non-refundable bucks for the mask set for the first chips that don’t come back from the fab until another two months after that, a lot of the focus is on making sure there isn’t any major blame to be allocated.

      2. sburch79

        I disagree. You don’t think the guy who was “mistakenly” thrown in jail wants to know why this happened and that the people in charge are at least making attempts to ensure it never happens again? If that were me, I would have a tinge of anxiety every time I checked the mail from now on. I would want to know someone was at least trying to prevent this in the future.

        Not that I think there is some magic answer to the problem, but the way government contracts out critical software development is going to lead to more issues like this.

        1. SHG Post author

          If that was you, he would. And he probably would be interested, after he’s released. But in the grand scheme of things he gives a shit about, it’s not high on the list. In contrast, you are primarily concerned in it not being your fault. That’s understandable given your position, but again, that’s because it’s you.

          1. Patrick Maupin

            (Especially, as Scott points out, the extent of your caring seems to be about whether you were at fault, which is a completely different question than “is there anything I could have done that would have made it easier for downstream people to do the right thing?”)

            1. sburch79

              I agree with Scott that while the guy is sitting in jail for a violation he didn’t commit, he doesn’t care what process or what error brought him there. He only cares that he is there.

              I disagree to the extent that he or you believe that my point was to shift blame because I used to be a software engineer. Software engineers are professionals that need to take responsibility for their work. Many do. I did when I used to do it. But many don’t. The current criteria most government agencies use to select winning bidders rewards those who ship fast, cheap software.

              Whether you agree with it or not, software is increasingly automating government processes. Easily preventable errors due to this automation will increase if the the criteria government uses to select software vendors is the same criteria it uses to select building material suppliers.

            2. Patrick Maupin

              You said you participated in a process where you weren’t able to do it right:

              The number of hours we were allowed to spend testing the software was regulated by our client (we were on a cost plus contract).

              That makes you nothing more or less than the techie version of the lawyers that Scott rightly excoriates here.

            3. sburch79

              That seems like a pretty stretched interpretation. I never said I didn’t have time to do something right or that I would put out anything less than my best product. I said the government didn’t want to pay the company to test certain aspects of the software. Doesn’t mean they didn’t work, it means they weren’t tested.

              The comparison to that public defender is just as stretched. First, software is a product, not a service. You can test your product before you ship. The number of potential tests is unlimited (it worked when I inputed ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’,…. but does it work when I input ‘99999’?). There is always a business judgment as to where the testing ends. There is nothing unethical or lazy about that. Second, she knowingly did a bad job. I never suggested I did that. I stated that we had less QA review on our software than the software that was used to pilot the freaking space shuttle. We had less QA review because the government made a
              (smart) business decision not to buy that much QA.

              If an attorney were to recommend that the client hire the top expert in a field to support to his positions and the client decides that that expert is too expensive and goes with an slightly inferior but cheaper expert, is the attorney obligated to either quit or come out of pocket? That’s absurd.

              The point is that the amount of money spent on QA is a business decision that the client (in this case the government) must decide how much they want to spend on. When government only uses price as the criteria for selecting vendors (as opposed to experience, reputation, etc), they are going to end up with the vendors who skip all of the QA to cut costs. It becomes a race to the bottom. But just because some software companies do that, doesn’t mean I did or that the company I worked at did.

            4. SHG Post author

              You may be taking this a little too personally. Anyways, this isn’t a sys dev blog, but a law blog, so, well, it really doesn’t matter except to you two computer guys. The rest of us, meh.

  3. bmaz

    Nice touch with the MC5.

    Also, some people at a much more high dollar and white collar JAMS, the high rent poohbahs at the Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, probably consider this an unfortunate thing to be in the news.

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