Seeking greater oversight, state law enforcement turns to a new search app to monitor 95,000 offenders

Published On: December 20, 2022

It doesn’t reach the heights of Minority Report predictive crime, nor does it plunge into the depths of Orwellian “Big Brother” surveillance, but California’s new parole system does one thing exceptionally well: It saves time — lots of it.

Officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) are touting the successful launch of an offender data system called Parole LEADS 3.0. The modern platform is the result of a major overhaul to the CDCR’s now obsolete Parole Law Enforcement Automated Data System 2.0 which dates back to 1997. Law enforcement had struggled to get updates from the old web application for the state’s more than 95,000 parolees.

“Although cutting-edge technology 20 years ago, the Parole LEADS 2.0 web application was outdated, insecure by today’s standards, not compatible with smartphones or tablets, and didn’t provide law enforcement agencies with easy-to-use controls and filters to adequately analyze offender data,” said Kristin Montgomery, the CDCR’s Director of Enterprise Information Services. “…This process [to use the tool] took time, was inefficient, and required a large number of CDCR support staff to manage the application.”

Montgomery’s comments came from a California nomination for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers 2022 State IT Awards, where she described the project as an essential, and long-awaited upgrade for critical data sharing.

Confronting problems

As the original system aged, Montgomery said it couldn’t adapt to basic requests from its more than 330 law enforcement agencies and 4,000-plus users. The Parole LEADS 2.0 system was plagued with several major problems and glitches.

In certain cases, information was unreadable, making it difficult or impossible to access crucial data. This stemmed from its outdated software and poor design. When looking up parolees for identification, agents were often given indiscernible images of mugshots and body markings.

Another issue with the system was a lack of compatibility with mobile devices. Many officers and field agents now rely on smartphones and tablets for information and reporting, but the displays on Parole LEADS 2.0 couldn’t adjust to the smaller screens. The limitation delayed work, jeopardized the effectiveness of operations, and frustrated agents who were relegated to laptop and desktop computers.

What’s more, the search function in the old system was also known to be particularly vexing. Without basic filtering for characteristics like height, age, date of birth, etc., agents were sent on wild goose chases, performing manual searches. These searches were sometimes long and often fruitless. 

Another heated complaint centered on password resets. These were intensely time-consuming. The small changes required staff to process them, and in some cases, Montgomery said agents abandoned attempts to use the app altogether.

A path forward

In light of the app’s flaws and foibles, CDCR went to work designing a new system. The ambition included a fix of past problems, plus a technical structure and design for the app to evolve in future updates.

Montgomery said these goals demanded immense work, so much so CDCR broke down development into three phases. The first involved research and feedback gathering. Engineers noted chief problems, set requested technical requirements and studied old documentation for a better grasp of the system. Then they collected requests from analysts, agency staff, and officers. It was an agency-wide, information-hunting expedition.

Yet arguably, the second phase brought the big push. CDCR’s developers had a back-and-forth job designing features and listening to feedback. That meant focus groups, constant outreach and Agile development standing front and center.

“In Phase II, the project team utilized Agile Development methodologies with CDCR’s new middle-tier framework, [a design structure to safely handle data], to iteratively develop and deliver the Parole LEADS 3.0 application over a series of two-week sprints,” Mongomery said.

“Each sprint started with a planning session where the project team would pull a small group of requirements and features from the backlog and would develop parts of the new Parole LEADS 3.0 web application. At the end of each two-week sprint, the team would meet with CDCR parole operations subject matter experts…to solicit feedback on the look, feel, and functionality of the new application.”

Going live

Last year, the app went live with a beta test in October and a full release in December. Based on user engagement statistics alone, CDCR is hailing the launch a success. The department has had a record breaking percentage of monthly log-ins, at 70 percent of all users and representing 233 percent increase. Further, Montgomery said IT staff have watched their workload drop.

“The LEADS Support Team has only received two help tickets for users who require additional support with the new progressive web application,” she said. “Typically, the LEADS Support Team would receive about 30 to 50 help inquiries per week.”

The department didn’t have specific metrics for staff hours and dollars saved by the new app, however, Montgomery said the takeaways from analyzing the apps usage highlight numerous additional benefits.

For example, there’s been a reduction in the number of law enforcement searches with the use of keyword search and filtering features for weight, age, height and even location. Visually, the app is now responsive with mobile devices, providing clear images and a user-friendly interface for field agent. And staff can even customize their data results screen and switch the app to “dark mode” for easier viewing at night.

Ultimately, Montgomery said Parole LEADS should greatly speed up the procedures to maintain accurate information on California’s parolees—making sure no one slips through the cracks. It also emphasized that the app promises a more efficient way for law enforcement officials to collaborate (using exportable data) and to add functionality. For instance, gang data associated with parolees is the next feature that will be added.

“This project has increased collaboration with local enforcement agencies and has allowed critical data to be shared with CDCR law enforcement partners,” Montgomery said. “The CDCR has a long-term roadmap to support and enhance the LEADS 3.0 over the years and it will provide external agencies with critical data to enable them to continue to keep the public safe.”

About the Author: Jason Shueh

Jason Shueh is a journalist and content strategist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work focuses on the tech sector, digital innovation, smart city growth, and entrepreneurship. He can be reached at jason at govreport.org.