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Texting reminders to defendants should reduce missed court dates and save money

September 12, 2018

Texting reminders to defendants should reduce missed court dates and save money

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A text-messaging service that reminds defendants of upcoming court dates holds great promise for reducing failure-to-appear rates and saving money in courtrooms across the county and in Cuyahoga County. 

In many cases, defendants don’t purposely skip out. They simply forget about their court date or, because they don’t have a stable address, miss notifications sent through the mail. 

“People want to come to court,” said Cuyahoga County Public Defender Mark Stanton. “They want to address their case. In general, they do.” 

That’s where a text-messaging service helps. Defendants may not read a letter, said Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, but they will look at their cell phones. 

Missed court dates can be bad news for defendants, especially if the judge orders their arrest and they wind up behind bars. They can also be costly to taxpayers who may foot the bill for the extra police work and jail time. 

Text-messaging is a small part of a larger package of online services provided by the Ohio Public Defender’s Office across the state. Young said the goal is to eventually provide the service to any client of a public defender’s office in Ohio as well as to those defendants who are assigned independent counsel. The cost, he said, is minimal at three quarters of a cent per text. 

The Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office has been using the text-messaging service for the past ten months, but only for felony defendants in Common Pleas Court. Clients in Juvenile Court and Cleveland Municipal Court will be added soon. 

Texting defendants is catching on in other states. A firm called Uptrust is providing an enhanced messaging service to several public defender offices around the country. Not only does it notify defendants of upcoming court dates, but it can also remind them to arrange for the necessary transportation and to line up childcare if need be. In turn, the defendant can respond to the text in a limited capacity, to say they are sick, for example, and can’t make court. 

Uptrust CEO Jacob Sills said failure-to-appear rates have gone from 15-20 percent to 5-6 percent with the help of Uptrust. The service is now in use in Yolo, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties in California; Baltimore, Md.; Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia; Spokane County, Wash., and Luzerne County, Pa. 

The idea for Uptrust evolved from a partnership between Sills, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and has an interest in bail reform, and Elijah Gwynn, a former software engineer with the online dating site OKCupid. 

The software costs about $10,000 to $20,000 to install and takes about six months to integrate, he said, and then public defender’s office is charged $2 per defendant. 

The Spokane County Public Defender’s Office in Washington has only been using Uptrust for a few weeks but the feedback has been positive from attorneys and clients, said office director Tom Krzyminski. While the service has the potential to save money, it’s also the right thing to do for defendants, he said. 

“I think our clients deserve this,” he said, much the same way patients are reminded by their doctor or dentist of an upcoming appointment, but with a difference. 

“You miss your doctor’s appointment, you’re not going to jail,” he said. 

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