Probation officers once tracked their clients on card files kept in recipe boxes, much as homemakers once organized their dinner menus.
"That is how we managed probation caseloads, pretty much universally at the time," said Tom Adkins, who oversees Washington County's community corrections department. "It was terrible. We didn't know what we should have known back then."
The recipe box days have faded as Adkins' department nears the end of a massive records conversion to new criminal justice databases that allow comprehensive tracking of Minnesota's 121,556 people on probation. About 12,000 paper files remain in his office, but they're fast disappearing.
"We're trying to capture many documents electronically and never turn them into the paper we all run around with," Adkins said.
An explosion of technology has allowed law enforcement agencies, prisons and most of the state's probation officers to compare notes on offenders' whereabouts, criminal tendencies, domestic abuse infractions and whether they're complying with court-ordered terms of probation.
In Washington County, one of the original 30 counties to buy the Court Services Tracking System (CSTS) when a company went bankrupt in 1994, the massive conversion from the recipe box days continues. Modern computer software organizes offenders by crimes, Adkins recently in told the County Board.
The growing sophistication of criminal justice databases means Washington County knows a lot about the roughly 6,000 offenders in the county.
"We can't hold them accountable if we can't track them," said Adkins, who started his career as a probation officer in Dakota County. "They also don't want us to remember things."
Probation officers -- Washington County has 47 of them -- have responsibility to enforce conditions that district judges impose when sentencing offenders in felonies, gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors. Probation can include requirements such as drug and DNA testing, alcohol counseling, crime-free behavior and restricted travel.
"If we have 60 clients and they have on average 10 conditions [each], that's 600," Adkins said, outlining the work of a single probation officer. "We couldn't constantly monitor that without this system."
Washington County also has 10 probation "aides" who manage lower-risk offenders. They monitor activity but don't become involved in efforts to change behavior, as probation officers do.
Before 2000, probation officers in Washington County couldn't track offenders in other counties. Without the CSTS databases, they also couldn't track multiple aliases that many criminals use to escape detection.
The 86 Minnesota counties that now share the CSTS database divide the cost. Hennepin County will join in January. Washington County has spent about $350,000 on annual support costs and upgrades for the system since contracting in 1987 with the private company that went bankrupt seven years later.
"It's producing a tremendous amount of criminal justice sharing," Adkins said of CSTS. "It added the eyes and ears of all law enforcement people."
Dennis Hegberg, chairman of the County Board, said offenders accustomed to changing their names and circumstances to avoid scrutiny can't do that anymore. The CSTS conversion has produced dramatic results at a relatively modest price, he said.
"I think it's an untold great story," Hegberg said.
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037, Twitter: @stribgiles