When a person is charged with a crime, or issued a traffic ticket, they might be ordered to appear in court. If they don’t show up, however, that violation—known as a failure to appear (FTA)—could result in fines, criminal charges, and incarceration.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office (TCPD) and Family & Children’s Services (F&CS) spearheaded an initiative to use state-of-the-art technology to address FTAs, decrease the use of pretrial detention, and increase critical court appearances. The initiative, partially funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, is part of a larger goal to seek innovative ways to tackle jail reform.
Holding people who have not been convicted of a crime costs Oklahoma approximately $8.9 million a year. Lowering FTA rates—and reducing the number of people who are arrested and incarcerated for this offense—could not only save money but also reduce the multiple collateral consequence of jail incarceration.
The problem of missed court dates disproportionately impacts members of low-income communities. The majority of these people do not miss court because they are fleeing, but because they just need some help. Common barriers include lack of transportation, daycare, or just the means to pay for a bus token.
The technology we used to address this problem is the Uptrust app, which uses text messages to remind individuals about court dates, and helps to elicit information about barriers that might prevent someone from making it to court in the first place. Individuals can reach out to their attorney about issues related to making it to court. The most innovative feature, however, is the ability to immediately mitigate barriers and other issues by connecting individuals with a case manager from F&CS, Oklahoma’s largest outpatient behavioral health provider.
Officially launched in late January, a case manager from F&CS’s oversees the Uptrust program at the TCPD’s office, working to remedy barriers in addition to connecting individuals with mental health, addiction and basic needs services. Assistant TCPD Glen Blake said they have already seen positive results from using the app. One defendant said, “Without the reminders and the resources offered to me, I wound never had made it to court. This has been needed for a long time.”
Since launching, Uptrust has texted reminders to 4859 clients with 5279 court dates. Whereas the FTA rate was an estimated 15% prior to launch, the FTA rate has dropped to 10.1% in only two months. The goal is to continue to fine-tune our processes until we achieve an FTA rate of under 7%.
TCPD will continue to place an emphasis on community engagement and collaboration among local law enforcement, corrections officials, prosecutors, defenders, judges, and other stakeholders in this work to test, innovate, and drive reform.
Uptrust founder Jacob Sills said, “We hope to replicate this partnership’s mission, and continue to seek ways to mitigate or even avoid unnecessary incarceration. This program allows us to focus on the root of the problem: what else may be going on in these defendants’ lives.”