The Solano County Public Defender’s Office announced it is joining the ranks of other counties across the state seeking to cut costs and court date no-shows through text messages.
The public defender’s office said it will begin using the Uptrust software system, designed by the San Francisco- and Massachusetts-based company, which allows attorneys to communicate with their clients through text messages and automatically reminds them of court dates.
The system costs $10,000–$20,000 to implement, according to Jacob Sills, CEO and co-founder of Uptrust, a cost that will be covered for the first two years in Solano County by grant funding from the Los Altos-based Heising-Simons Foundation. Uptrust typically charges counties $2 per client per year as well, he said.
Counties incur costs in detaining people accused of a crime before trial as well as tracking them when they are released from custody pending trial. The system is intended to spare Solano County from many of those costs.
When defendants miss a court date, a judge can issue a bench warrant for their arrest, and it is a jailable offense, Sills said. Failure-to-appear rates in other counties Uptrust operates in hover from 15% to 20%, and Sills said implementation of his company’s software has in some places cut those numbers in half.
Sills estimated of the 10,000 clients handled by the public defender’s office in Solano County annually, 500 to 1,000 receive bench warrants that could be eliminated through the software, freeing up the funds associated with issuing the warrants, which run between $500 to $1,000 apiece.
“These cost saving might be spread across multiple stakeholders,” Sills said, noting the savings could affect the budgets of local police and sheriff’s departments, court clerks, and others.
Elena D’Agustino, interim public defender for the county, said while she is not sure exactly how much money the county and her office stand to save or how the money might be repurposed, she supports “anything that will help our clients make it to court and avoid warrants being issued.”
A two-week pilot program went well and improved communication between lawyers and their clients, said D’Augustino, acknowledging she hasn’t used the software herself yet.
Other counties Uptrust operates in include Yolo, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara.
Public defenders and court administrators are using text reminders in more than a dozen states, including Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Washington.
In Contra Costa County, California, public defenders began using text reminders in 2016. Court data showed more than half of misdemeanor defendants weren’t showing up for their hearings.
“For people who have jobs and are hard to reach, or people under 25, texting is the best way to reach them,” said Blanca Hernandez, deputy public defender in Contra Costa County.
In New York City, researchers who studied a pilot program found that from March 2016 to June 2017 text messages that combined information on planning, what to expect and the consequences of not going to court led to a 26 percent drop in the number of no-shows.
Text messages were initially used by some courts to remind people to report for jury duty, said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said using text reminders is part of a larger effort to reform bail and other parts of the criminal justice system that can be overly punitive for people who have been charged, but not yet convicted.