New online tool helps probationers

Posted: 12th Aug 2013

More than 600 probationers in two of the country’s largest court systems – Dallas and Baltimore City, Maryland - are testing a new tool for substance abuse treatment developed by School of Public Health professor Scott Walters, PhD, and colleagues from UNT Health Science Center, Wayne State University, University of Virginia and George Mason University.

Called MAPIT and funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this innovative idea uses voice-automated online software to help individuals meet the terms of their probation, set goals and stay motivated in their recovery. The program can recognize patterns in how people respond and make suggestions for strategies that might work for them. MAPIT can even send emails or text messages to remind people of their monthly goals. MAPIT represents a new wave of e-health applications with great promise for reducing criminal justice costs, blending psychological and criminal justice theories with practical, user-friendly features.

“Essentially, MAPIT is the probationer’s partner,” Walters explains. “Using a personal tone, open-ended questions, affirmations and summary feedback, MAPIT was found effective by users in initial studies, who told us that it seems to actually ‘listen’ and respond accordingly. They also felt that the anonymous nature of working with a computer was more comfortable than talking face to face with a counselor or probation officer about sensitive issues.”

MAPIT uses “Jennifer,” a bright, friendly female voice with a non-specific dialect, preferred by users over other voices tested. MAPIT employs “persuasive” technology to change attitudes or behaviors through encouragement rather than coercion.

“About 3.5 million U.S. probationers need substance abuse treatment, but less than half actually complete it,” Walters notes. “It’s a major cost to society. People are being incarcerated simply because they are unmotivated for treatment. So the question is, how can we motivate them to initiate treatment early on, before problems develop.”





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