Spokane Journal of Business

New text service aims to keep defendants out of jail

While reducing failure to appear rates, tool cuts costs

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Thomas Krzyminski, director of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office, says the response to UpTrust has been positive so far, though the county is still working to improve its records.

(UPDATED at 4:30 p.m. PST 9/27/18 to  update UpTrust's failure-to-appear rates.)

A newly implemented text-messaging service designed to remind defendants of upcoming court dates has the potential to reduce failure-to-appear rates and save money in Spokane County courtrooms as well as space in its jails, says a Spokane public defender here.

Thomas Krzyminski, director of the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office, says plans for the new service began two years ago, when Spokane received a $1.75 million grant through the MacArthur Foundation.

“The purpose of that grant was to reduce the jail population as well as address racial and ethnic disparities,” says Krzyminski. “We’d been brainstorming ideas for attacking this problem and decided to use a portion of that grant money toward providing this service.”

Krzyminski says the Spokane County commissioners approved in July a $40,000 contract with Uptrust, a San Francisco-based company that offers a text message-based communication and engagement tool that reminds defendants to arrive at court for scheduled hearings and other mandatory appointments.

He says half of the money was put toward initial set-up costs, and the other half will cover the program in its first year.

“We chose to go with Uptrust because of their understanding of public defense work and client needs,” he says. “The county was very receptive to it, and the program was officially implemented inAugust.”

Jacob Sills, San Francisco-based founder of Uptrust, says the service provider collects data on failure-to-appear rates before and after implementing the system as a way of tracking its effectiveness.

Although Uptrust doesn’t yet have exact figures for Spokane, he says to date Uptrust’s messaging system has reduced failure-to-appear rates to less than 10 percent in most counties it works with and has reduced failure-to-appear rates by 50 percent in some jurisdictions.

“We believe as new clients are added to the system and we collect accurate phone numbers, the failure-to-appear rate will continue to decrease,” he says. 

Sills says Uptrust still needs to do a detailed analysis of the cost of failure-to-appear incidents in Spokane; however, it estimates that the cost is about $1,000 for each incident. Included in those costs are things like issuing and enforcing bench warrants and the cost of keeping defendants incarcerated prior to trial. 

After working in private equity and investment banking, Sills says his passion for criminal justice reform led him to start Uptrust in 2015.

 “In attending bail hearings, I started to notice that when a client failed to appear, judges and prosecutors would tend to assume they had fled,” he says. “But it turns out, most were missing court because they forgot, had an unexpected health care issue, couldn’t find child care, or lacked transportation to get there.” 

Sills says he immediately saw a business opportunity in helping clients keep their appointments and stay out of jail, saving attorneys time and reducing the cost to municipalities and counties.

“I saw that if we could help people make it to court, it would not only save these counties money, but would also have a social impact,” he says. “If clients were able to communicate with their public defender, they could eliminate those obstacles and avoid jail time.”

He says the company is contracted with more than 10 public defender’s offices around the U.S. and reaches more than 100,000 defendants.

“Public defender’s offices are the perfect partners for this business, because they care about their clients and are well positioned to ask them about their needs,” he says.

While the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office does send reminders by mail, Krzyminski says some clients don’t have a reliable address, and public defenders don’t always have time to make reminder phone calls.

“Historically, clients aren’t treated very well by the system, and it can sometimes be complicated to navigate,” he says. “But this is a basic service that will allow clients to receive messages in a timely manner, and the best part is that it happens without us thinking about it, because it’s able to use the database we’re already using.” 

In addition to reminders about court dates, Sills says that in Spokane, Uptrust’s services also help connect defendants with already-available county resources, such as child care at the courthouse.

“Spokane County is a great area for us to offer this because it has a lot of community-oriented resources like child care and transportation,” he says.

While there is no cost to defendants for using the texting service, Sills says it has taken about three months to integrate the program into the county’s systems.

“Many defendants already have fines and fees to pay, so we don’t want to charge them for this,” he says. “We do charge the county a certain amount for the service, which amounts to probably $2 per client annually and is presumably recouped in savings.”

Krzyminski says the response to the new texting service has been positive so far, although there have been some growing pains as the system has settled into place. 

“Some things have still slipped through just due to simple human error in the input of information,” he says.  “It might also be that the client didn’t have updated contact information or a reliable phone number. We’re working with our IT department to try to eliminate those errors.”

While most proponents of the new service look at it as a cost savings measure, Krzyminski says he hopes clients will be the ones who benefit most.

“These days, you get reminders for doctor or dental appointments, but if you miss those, you don’t get sent to jail,” he says. “The technology is available, so I see offering this service to our clients as the right thing to do.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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