Sen. Lee Hopes Bill for Court Appearance Reminders Passes After Failing Last Year

System includes text message program to remind defendants of upcoming court dates

People in Colorado who have upcoming court dates may soon be able to opt in to receiving a text message reading, something like: “Mr. Smith, Don’t forget! You have a court date on Mon. February 19 in Liberty Court on 123 Main St. at 2 p.m.”

The text messages would come if Senate Bill 36 passes. The measure aims to reduce the number of people who end up in jail for missing a court date, because the effects of reducing failures to appear ripple beyond just the arrests themselves. 

Localities spend time and money arresting, processing and housing people, and bill sponsor Sen. Pete Lee said it’s estimated between 40 to 60 percent of people in county jails are there for failing to appear in court. The bill comes on the heels of an initial recommendation by Colorado’s Bail Blue Ribbon Commission, which has been examining opportunities for reforming pretrial practices around the state.

“I’d much rather have that jail filled with violent criminals … than people who forgot to pay a $100 fine,” said bill sponsor Sen. John Cooke. Cooke formerly served as Weld County’s sheriff, and he said booking officers follow the same process for people coming into the jail regardless of whether they have been arrested on a failure-to-appear warrant or a violent felony. 

According to a 2018 survey of county jails by Joint Budget Committee staff, they spend an average of $98.83 per day to house an offender. Cooke said a person arrested on a failure to appear warrant could remain in jail anywhere from a few hours or until their next court date if they can’t post bond.

Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said court staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys also benefit from having their caseloads reduced, even by small amounts.

“You have such a huge stack of files you’re dealing with every day, and the notion that one has to go back into that stack because the defendant forgot or wasn’t sure what day he or she needed to be in court, that hurts everybody,” he said. “A lot of unnecessary things can be eliminated from the process by just reminding the defendant to show up.”

Some locations in the U.S., including Jefferson County, have tested phone-call reminder programs that predate text message reminders. Jefferson County implemented a live call-based pilot program in 2006. But Lee said he does not believe call reminders are effective because people are less likely to answer their phones if they don’t recognize the phone number the call is coming from.

“I can tell you, as a political candidate, you call people, [you don’t get an answer],” he said. “But everybody pays attention to their texts.” According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union, Douglas County estimates its reminder program decreased failure-to-appear rates by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015.

Jefferson County began a text reminder program last fall. According to data from the ACLU, reductions as a result of reminders in defendants failing to appear have  saved Jefferson County $400,000 per year.

The most recent fiscal note for Senate Bill 36 estimates implementing a reminder program would cost $181,593 in the first year, between developing the computer programming and the cost of a contract with a third-party vendor. After the program is developed, the ongoing vendor contract would cost an estimated $99,185 per year.

According to Judicial Department data included in the note, 108,638 failure-to-appear warrants were issued in 2018.

One company, Uptrust, provides appearance reminders but also seeks to address other common hindrances to people showing up in court besides forgetting. The company helps connect people with social services such as childcare or transportation.

“There are so many things that you can do with a pretty simple program,” Lee said. He added he believes, in general, people intend to fulfill their obligations. At last Monday’s hearing for Senate Bill 36, the committee approved an amendment to allow the program to notify people of court closures when needed. 

Lee said he expects it will also have capabilities to remind people of appearances for probation and other types at the municipal court level.

Lee and Cooke sponsored another bill for a reminder program last year, but it died in the Senate. Cooke said he thought that bill ended up too complicated. It included requirements to connect defendants with social services they might need, similar to Upstart’s model, but Cooke said defendants should take personal responsibility for doing what they need to do to get to court.

“They put a lot of junk on it, in my opinion,” he said. Some stakeholder groups supporting this year’s bill include the Colorado Department of Law and Policy, the ACLU, the Colorado Municipal League and the Colorado District Attorneys Council.

Lee said he hopes the rest of the legislature already understands the significance of Senate Bill 36 since he brought the previous bill. “It’s a win for the people who don’t have to go jail, it’s a win for the courts who don’t have to deal with repetitive appearances by people, and it’s a win for the jails that have these swelling populations.”

— Julia Cardi

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