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County Hopes Text Messages Will Help Defendants Show Up



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A new text message service in Fresno County aims to ensure clients represented by the public defender’s office show up in court.

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The service, called Uptrust, sends personalized text messages to public defender clients reminding them of their scheduled court hearings and other legal appointments. The goal is to reduce the number of Failure to Appear incidents and technical violations that result in arrest warrants and incarcerations.
The company says local governments across the country spend more than $9 billion on unnecessary pretrial incarceration. And, $1 billion more goes to issuing and enforcing FTAs.
The cost to Fresno County of $2 a client is covered by a grant from the Bay Area-based Heising-Simons Foundation for 18 months.

‘Failure to Appear’ is a Costly Problem

“FTAs are costly to taxpayers and to the public defender’s time,” said Uptrust CEO Jacob Sills in a news release. “At the same time, too many people are sitting in jail who don’t need to be there. Fresno’s public defenders see the value in making a change and we are here to help.”
Such violations can occur for reasons other than an attempt to simply avoid court, Sills told Government Technology in 2018. He said Uptrust can provide a path for addressing challenges that public defender clients may face.
“If you’re a single mother and you have court, the issue you have … might be child care,” he said. “How can we think about, in the future, connecting you to that child care?”
Fresno County arrested more than 5,000 people last year for Failure to Appear violations, the company said.

Messaging System Gaining Traction Across U.S.

Thirty public defender offices across the United States use the system, including eight in California. The company says it has reduced FTAs by more than 50% in some places.
The platform sends text messages similar to those used by many doctor and dentist offices to remind patients of appointments. It also allows clients to text back to their assigned public defender to continue the conversation, if needed.
“Fresno County’s partnership with Uptrust provides an innovative way for the Public Defender to aid our clients and significantly reduce Failures to Appear in Court,” said Fresno County Public Defender Elizabeth Diaz. “This technology helps keep people out of jail while also freeing up valuable county resources.”