Parole officers close the book on paper

In Georgia, the letter of the law just got a little easier to keep. State parole officers are finding it simpler to keep records of interviews with Georgia's 22,000 parolees, because they can now jot notes into a Gateway Inc. Tablet PC as easily as if they were writing with pen and paper.

Using a stylus, an officer can record a parolee interview directly onto a laptop-sized screen. If the handwriting is neat enough, the 3-pound computer translates the officer's handwriting into a typewritten document. It can also store notes in handwritten form.

Officers can press a toolbar to turn the stylus into an eraser, making it easier to correct errors or change fonts. Officers who prefer typing can bring along a portable keyboard.

"There are a few minor discrepancies, like sometimes it reads the letter 'l' like the number '1,' but it's not hard to fix," said Officer Russell Neal Bloodworth.

Tablet computers are gaining ground among federal agencies, too, as officials discover the devices' versatility.

Motion Computing Inc. already has 23 federal agencies using its machines, said Scott Eckert, the company's chief executive officer. Motion builds the tablets Gateway sells and also sells them under its own name.

The company announced new distribution agreements last week with Dell Computer Corp., GovConnection Inc. and Micro Warehouse Inc. and is listing its products — including a new line of computers — on those companies' General Services Administration schedule contracts.

The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles selected the Gateway Tablet PCs after a yearlong search. "I think a lot of the tablet's success is because of the form factor," said Kim Gleason, senior manager of government marketing for Gateway. "Laptops can be kind of awkward, but the [tablet] PC is ideal for people like parole officers who move around frequently."

The officers, who keep tabs on more than 22,000 parolees statewide, are glad to say goodbye to the laptops they were using. Officers frequently travel to do interviews, and found it annoying to lug the large, heavy laptops.

In addition, laptop batteries didn't last long, so officers needed access to an electrical outlet when working. That forced some officers to wait hours to enter information from a parolee interview into a computer, and by then they had to rely on limited handwritten notes and memory, often resulting in incomplete and even inaccurate information.

"We were worried about the quality and accuracy of officers coming back and entering information," said Nino Samuels, network and local area network manager of information technology procurement at the Georgia parole board. "We needed a computer they could use in the field."

Because of security issues, officers leave the tablet PCs in their cars, but the devices' batteries last longer than the laptops' batteries did. That allows officers to enter information as soon as they return to their cars, according to Bloodworth. The process also improves accuracy, he added.

When officers return to the main office, they can upload their notes into a central case management database, which helps eliminate the errors that often come from re-entering data by hand.

Other states are interested in Georgia's approach. In Maryland, agents now take notes in a field notebook. The Maryland Division of Parole and Probation is developing a case management system similar to Georgia's that will enable agents to enter their notes into a central computer system. This process would make their field notes available to their colleagues. However, the state does not yet have the funding to buy tablet computers for all of their agents.

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