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Criminal Defendants Can Get Text Alerts for Court Dates

What if somebody texted reminders to clients to appear in court -- and to keep them out of jail?

That's the idea behind a software program running in various counties and cities, where defendants receive text messages to avoid a "failure to appear." One program, which costs about $20,000, promises to save a lot more in warrants and jail time.

So far, half a dozen cities or counties are using text-message systems. They include some pretty big municipalities from California to New York.

Cost of Detention

Contra Costa County, for example, is home to more than one million people. The public defender's office uses Uptrust to send four text reminders to lower FTA's in misdemeanor cases -- which happens more than half the time.

Blanca Hernandez, a deputy public defender in Contra Costa, said about one third of the people who appeared at their first court date said they found out about it from the text reminder.

According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, pre-trial detention costs taxpayers about $14 billion a year. Jacob Sills, chief executive officer of Uptrust, says his texting program costs $2 per defendant after installation.

"There is this perception that flight risk is a real thing that people need to worry about," Sills said. However, he told the ABA Journal that the vast majority of criminal defendants are not flight risks -- they're attendance risks.

Coast to Coast

In New York City, one study said text reminders significantly reduced FTA's.

Defendants failed to appear in 40 percent of cases before the city began sending text messages and simpler summonses. The texts brought down FTA's by 26 percent; the redesigned summons, 13 percent.

"Our results are very encouraging -- text messaging is very cheap," said Aurelie Ouss, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the study. "And so even modest improvements in court attendance could be highly cost-effective."

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