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published on December 11, 2019 - 10:40 AM
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The Fresno Public Defender’s Office is trying a new way to ensure the defendants it serves don’t miss court dates and possibly land in jail as a result.

Under a grant, the PD’s office has been using since Oct. 14 a “social justice text messaging communication platform,” essentially software that sends text messages to clients to remind them of upcoming court dates and meetings, similar to how medical offices send out appointment reminders to patients.

Arriving on time is important for defendants, as failures to appear in court and for mandatory appointments can result in arrest warrants being issued, with some defendants landing in jail, states a joint press release issued by the county PD’s Office and Uptrust, the Massachusetts-based developer of the software and system being tried here.

“Low-income defendants miss court and other mandatory appointments, leading to over one million avoidable nights in jail each year,” across the U.S., states the company’s website. “When the vast majority of defendants miss court, they are not fleeing. They just need help.”

The Uptrust system also has a feature that, if the PD’s office chooses to use it, allows defendants to text back their public defenders to inform them of issues that might affect their abilities to appear in court or attend meetings, said Jacob Sills, CEO and co-founder of Uptrust, said in a phone interview.

“Uptrust’s trademarked, communication platform also helps defendants schedule meetings with their attorney. In the coming months, the platform will be enhanced, as Uptrust will rollout features that allow attorneys and social-workers to refer their clients to local social services,” the press release states. 

“The partnership employs Uptrust’s innovative communication service, which effectively reduces wasted taxpayer funds, improves efficiency for the county’s attorneys, and decrease the number of incarcerations for certain violations,” it continues, noting that funding for Fresno County’s public defenders to use the system is being provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, which among other things supports human rights causes.

Uptrust is being used in 37 public defenders offices across the U.S., with Fresno being the eighth in California.

“We historically charge $2 per client” for the service, and estimates are that Fresno County’s bill would come out to about $15,000 for the first 12 months of the 18-month test cycle, Sills said, adding that the grant is covering the entire 18 months.

As for the extent of clients missing appointments and court dates here, the press release states that in Fresno County, more than 5,000 people were arrested for failures to appear just last year. 

Sills said part of the goal is to save money, as there are costs associated with missed hearings and meetings, as once a warrant is issued law enforcement has to track the defendant, along with the costs of booking those people into jail and holding them, not to mention the added court time involved.

“We estimate an added cost of $500 to $1,000 every occurrence,” said Sills, noting that nationally the rate of failures to appear among public defender clients tends to run at about 15-20%, which is about the rate occurring among Fresno County PD clients, based on his discussions with officials here.

His company’s website claims to be achieving an average 95% attendance rate in jurisdictions where Uptrust is used.

The Fresno County PD’s Office didn’t respond to interview requests to discuss why so many clients miss court and meeting dates and the financial effects here.

“It’s a really no-brainer way for a county to be saving money while supporting safety,” Sills said of his system.

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