Everything about law is changing. Who would have thought that courts would text messages to defendants to show up on their court dates?
But as reported by Virginia Lawyers Weekly, courts around the country are embracing text messages as a way to nudge people into showing up for their hearings. On any given day, up to half of defendants fail to show up for their scheduled proceedings. No-shows cost the courts time and money, and failure to appear can cost defendants their freedom.
Public defenders and court administrators are using text reminders in more than a dozen states, including Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Washington.
Richmond Public Defender Tracy Paner said the reminders have been a huge help to her clients, who are often struggling with poverty and chaotic family lives, in addition to dealing with the fallout from an arrest. Missing a court date can spur a judge to issue a bench warrant, which can lead to a citation or arrest, fines and even jail time.
“If you’re hustling and you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent and looking for a job and wondering where you are going to get food, kind of the last thing on your mind is your court date,” Paner said. “If we can help with that, that’s easy for us.”
In Richmond and Petersburg, the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission used a grant to set up a pilot program. The commission contracted with Uptrust, a San Francisco-based company whose software integrates with the public defender’s case management software to access the names, cellphone numbers, court dates and other information to track cases.
Uptrust’s software builds a schedule of reminders for each defendant and automatically sends texts on those dates. The messages are typically sent 10 days, one week and one day before a scheduled hearing. Some texts also include customized messages reminding people to seek time off from work, arrange for child care and figure out how they will get to court.
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.
In Arizona, after court administrators started a pilot program last year, the text reminders for criminal court hearings helped reduce the number of failure-to-appear warrants issued in Scottsdale Municipal Court by 51.9% during its first three months.
Uptrust charges an initial fee of $10,000 to $20,000 and a $2 fee for each person who receives text reminders.
In Spokane, Washington, public defenders began using a texting system in September, not only for court date reminders, but also to let defendants know there’s a daycare facility inside the courthouse where their children can stay while they’re in court. What a great concept, having a day care center in the courthouse!
This is not the world in which I grew up as a lawyer – but I applaud the effort to adapt to the modern world and serve the cause of justice with technology. On the other hand, I hope I don't ever receive one of those "C U in Court" texts!
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