Computer glitch wrongly accuses hundreds of ditching court-mandated drug tests

Sep 21, 2015 at 11:35 am

Another bureaucratic computer error could have dire consequences for Michigan residents.

Last week Dana O’Neal, a supervisor at Oakland County pre-trial services, sent out a memo to judges across the county warning them that between August 26 and September 11 Jail Alternatives for Michigan Services (JAMS), metro-Detroit’s largest provider of court ordered drug tests, experienced a multi-week computer glitch that wrongly accused hundreds of pre-trail defendants of ditching their required drug tests.

Of the estimated 600 people that were scheduled to be tested during that two and a half week period, almost one-third were marked as "no-shows" when they had in fact appeared, according to O’Neal, who became aware of the glitch after several consecutive days in which her office failed to hear of a single positive or negative result—just no-shows.

After spending last week going through all 600 individual test results—the error manifested in a report sent to the courts and Oakland County pre-trail services, but the true results could be found on each individual’s personal JAMS account—O’Neal and her team sent the memo to the courts on Thursday. A big motivating factor in getting the word out was the fact that individuals can be summoned, and in some cases sent to jail, for missing court-mandated drug tests.

“Any no-show is sanctionable,” says O’ Neal. “And most judges are more likely to sanction on a now-show report because it just shows the defendant did not go to test.” While every judge responds to these tests differently, O’Neal realized she needed to send something out when she began receiving phone calls from from judges and defense attorneys in regards to no-show tests. “Clearly at that point JAMS had not communicated anything out to the court.”

JAMS has not responded to phone calls in regards to the glitch. The Farmington Hills based company, which also provides drug and alcohol testing for Wayne, Macomb and Livingston county courts, has been the subject of scrutiny in the past. According to the Detroit Free Press, Troy District Judge Kristen Nielsen Hartig banned defendants from using JAMS for their mandated testing a few months ago after becoming aware of the company’s reputation for inaccurate reports. Nielsen Hartig, however, also pointed out the JAMS is not an anomoly—for-profit drug-testing companies are largely unregulated in the state.

“The problem is not just JAMS. This is the underbelly of the criminal justice system,” Nielsen Hartig told the Free Press.

While much attention has been placed on issues within the felony court system, failures and inadequacies in the misdemeanor courts are often not as visible. For-profit probation systems and drug testing companies are  only recently coming under the same scrutiny. In 2013 The Detroit Free Press investigated ties between Novi Judge Brian MacKenzie—who was keen on punishing probationers with mandated drug tests— and testing firms, including JAMS. There is also increased recognition of the financial burden these private organization represent for those within the criminal justice system. According to Profiting from Probation a 2014 report released by Human Rights Watch, most for-profit companies charge approximately $25 for a drug test. If a defendant or probationer is sentenced to weekly tests for a year this easily adds up to well over $1,000. Then, as the JAMS computer malfunction highlights, there are questions about the accuracy of these tests. 

According to O' Neal, so far nobody has been summoned to court or sent to jail because of the JAMS computer glitch, however, in her letter to the Oakland County judges she recommended that “prior to negative consequences being imposed" courts get in touch with her office to confirm the results.