The main courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office has launched a text messaging system to remind clients of upcoming court dates. Above, the main courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The Public Defender’s Office just launched a text messaging system to remind clients of upcoming court dates, to try and reduce the number of failure-to-appear violations and bench warrants issued in Santa Barbara County.

Court dates are scheduled during the typical workday, and cases are frequently continued, with appearances required over a span of months if not years.

“Failure-to-appears are a very common problem here and elsewhere,” said Deepak Budwani, the chief financial and administrative officer for the Public Defender’s Office. “A lot of individuals don’t show up to court, (an arrest) warrant gets sent out, and it adds to one of the barriers the client faces.”

Now, the case management system sends reports to the Uptrust text messaging system, and clients get notifications of a court date when it is scheduled, a week before, and the day before.

Budwani likens it to the notifications from a dentist’s office, reminding someone to show up for the appointment and perhaps rearrange their schedule.

The Public Defender’s Office is using Uptrust for court appointments and office appointments for all out-of-custody clients, he said.

Office staff tested the system with fake cases for about six weeks before launching in early November, and have not had any glitches so far, he said.

“To be honest, the clients have been very thankful to get these reminders,” he said.

One of his goals, and Public Defender Tracy Macuga’s, has been to use technological tools and private-public partnerships to benefit clients and help with the office’s workload, he said.

The Public Defender’s Office has 39 attorneys, including Macuga, and about 2,500 clients in the system.

“When I first started in the office here, I had read about the pilot Uptrust project in Contra Costa County,” Budwani said.

Seven California counties are implementing this two-year pilot program, which is being fully funded by the private The Heising-Simons Foundation in Los Gatos.

The Uptrust system costs about $20,000 to set up and then $2 per client, Budwani said.

“We were the last to go live, even though we were the ones to set up the arrangement with Uptrust and finding a private donor,” Budwani said.

Uptrust says it has seen the rate of failure-to-appear violations drop by more than 75 percent in some jurisdictions where the system has been used, with high open rates on the text messages themselves.

In California, counties that have implemented this program include Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Yolo, Solano, Ventura County and San Bernardino.

“Too many people are sitting in jail and don’t need to be there,” Uptrust founder Jacob Sills said in a statement. “Our technology will help Santa Barbara County save both taxpayer funds and public defenders’ time, and give defendant clients better support in the judicial system.”

Attorneys usually call their clients the day before a court date to remind them to show up, and ask them to be on time, Budwani said. While they won’t need to make those calls anymore, they will obviously still stay in close contact with clients, he said.

The messages are being sent in English and Spanish, with many other languages available, according to Budwani.  

“Ideally, we would love to do texting for Mixteco for that population but there is no written language, so that’s one negative there,” he said.

It’s too soon to know whether the program will be effective locally, but the Public Defender’s Office has plans to expand the system to two-way communication and help with other barriers for clients, such as getting rides to court or coordinating child care.

The county’s courthouses are located in Santa Maria, Lompoc, Solvang and Santa Barbara.

“Someone might miss one and show up subsequently; It’s not that someone absconded, right? Life got in the way,” said Superior Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker.

Reducing failure-to-appears would help defendants stay out of custody and save the criminal-justice system time and money, he said.

“My experience is that everyone has a cell phone, so if they’re getting text reminders, I definitely think it would be an improvement,” Parker said.

If someone misses a court appointment, the judge often issues an arrest warrant, which is sent to law enforcement. It also means there’s an unproductive court meeting.

“I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time, but it does effectively waste time because all parties have assembled except the party that’s the subject of the case,” Parker said.

The Superior Court Pretrial Services division calls defendants to remind them of their court dates, and other staff members send out reminders for mediations in family dissolutions and other cases. 

“It improves the appearance rate by 75 percent, I think,” Parker said.

Next year, the court will start sending text message reminders for people serving jury duty, he added.  

Text message reminders have been proven effective in other areas, he said, referencing a study on a Washington, D.C., Pretrial Services Agency program that sent letters, texts and email messages to remind defendants of court appointments. All the methods helped, and the text messages were the most effective. 

“They found that 96 percent of those receiving text messages showed up, followed by email with 95 percent, and 94 percent with letters,” he said. 

Public Defender’s Offices have been implementing text message notification programs all over the country, and Uptrust serves 25 offices in multiple states, according to the company.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.