I’ve been a Public Defender for 24 years, the last four as Chief Public Defender in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.  Like many of you, I think there are certain parts of the criminal justice system that are not only unjust, but unfair and senseless. 

One of those, is the issuance of a “capias” or arrest warrant for Defendant’s who fail to appear (FTA) for a scheduled court appearance.  What I’ve found is that Public Defender clients are likely to have moved or for some other reason, they did not receive the written allegations in the mail, nor do they receive notice of their first scheduled appearance, which in Pennsylvania, with most misdemeanors, is a Preliminary Hearing.  A capias is issued, and before you know it, a large percentage of Defendant’s are sitting in jail on a low level misdemeanor charge for which bail would have been unsecured and even a conviction would not result in jail time.  Exacerbating the situation, is the fact that many of these individuals are not Public Defender clients at all; for some reason they fail to apply or reach out for our services.

The costs of the capiases, both direct and indirect, are astronomical.  One recent study found that the cost of incarceration of just one person for FTA, including the costs of the Sheriff, the jail, the Police, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Court, the Clerk, etc., exceed $2,500.  In Luzerne County, the costs easily approach, if not exceed, $2,000,000.  These numbers do not include the societal costs, and the “social” costs to the incarcerated person, which we are all aware of.

In late December, 2016, the Luzerne County Public Defender’s Office entered into a pilot program with Uptrust, Inc., a San Francisco based public benefit corporation.  Uptrust sends text messages to our clients, like your doctor or dentist sends to you, to remind them of upcoming court appearances.  Uptrust gets this data from our case management system, Justice Works, which in turn gets the data from the Commonwealth Criminal Case Management System, CPCMS.
What we are finding, even at this early stage, is that the number of FTA’s, for Public Defender clients is declining.  We believe we are reducing FTA’s by double digit percentages.  We recognize, too, that the preliminary data shows that the vast majority of FTA’s and incarcerations are for unrepresented people, an issue which we are working to address. 

In spite of the fact that we have only begun to collect and analyze the data, we can say without reservation that a simple text message is an effective method to get people to come to Court.  Uptrust’s software allows staff attorneys and support staff to communicate other information to, and receive communications from clients too, providing a quick, easy and timely boost to our goal of delivering effective public defense.

Once we have gathered and analyzed more data, I will be happy to update this post with our findings.  Technology is good!