Edited and condensed for clarity.
Michelle Barclay: Judge Hope, tell us a little bit about your text notification program. Is that the right title?
Judge Hope: That title is close enough, we also call it a court reminder system or automated court reminders. At some point, I would like it to be a simultaneous text and email system but we need a bit more technology to do that so we have started with a text reminder system. It is mildly embarrassing that a doctor will text you a reminder of your appointment date, your mechanic will text you when you need to bring your car in to get it serviced, and yet the courts are not catching up with that type of service, especially in a traffic court where people missing court dates even on a seatbelt ticket speeding ticket, can have such drastic outcomes. No one’s going to jail, but if they ignore their court date, they can get their license suspended, if they’re driving with a suspended license then that person can be arrested. And so the idea of trying to supplement our standard notifications with an electronic reminder was something that, to me, seemed beneficial to the public and to the courts.
Barclay: So if someone gets a ticket, how does it work? Does that person opt in? How do you get their cell phone number?
Judge Hope: We have front end paperwork. I would definitely advise any courts that are interested in doing this that you need to think about it from the ground up. You want to make sure you do have the right waivers in your documents. We start out with our paperwork, anyone who was arrested on a DUI or shoplifting in the bond itself, where they sign their notice of their court date, because in our jurisdiction for misdemeanor offenses, you will get an in-hand notice of your next court date. If one bonds out, you provide your address and your phone number on that bond paperwork. We added a line to get two phone numbers and a checkbox that when checked, indicates the person agrees that the county can text reminders of upcoming court dates.
Thus, the notification was built into the arrest and bond paperwork, then we shifted to doing the same thing for our traffic tickets as well. Our local police department had to order a new batch of tickets, we had to educate everyone but now the court notification text reminder waiver is incorporated into traffic tickets where people are able to sign off on it.
Barclay: Sounds good. Were there any worries about the text notifications being voluntary or mandatory?
Judge Hope: Not really, everybody has been signing up for it. If a person calls us and says we don’t want to receive these notifications anymore, then we go ahead and remove them. But that has not really happened. What usually happens is that a person who calls us tells us that we have the wrong number so either we were given a wrong number or the number was mis-transcribed or it is an old number. Those have been the only phone calls so far.
Barclay: How did you get this court text reminder system started?
Judge Hope: We applied to the Arnold Foundation to get a grant to get the notification system up and running, especially with the uniform misdemeanor citations coming on board. We are now citing people who previously would have been arrested for shoplifting. There was criticism of that approach in that people were worried the folks receiving those citations would not take their court date seriously so we wanted to remind them about their court dates by text. We thought the text notifications would make the people with the citations take it seriously. The Arnold Foundation funds grants throughout the nation to help courts with ‘failure to appear’ rates.
We didn’t end up getting that grant, however, we learned about other court systems that were using text notifications and we learned about Twilio. There’s no upfront cost but it costs one cent per text. It just basically involves using our current case management system, exporting a report that has the event and the phone number and uploading that into this web client created by Twilio. And that’s all we have to do. We send a text reminder two weeks before the court date and the day before the court date so each person gets two reminders.
Barclay: Sounds like a pretty seamless launch?
Judge Hope: It was. We had the help of our County Information System folks as we are a unified government. I’m a full time Municipal Court Judge and I got a lot of help from our county. We had to have an export of an Excel report to begin creating the text messages. We also utilized our local Public Information Office to get some advice because they already text notifications for government events. We had to learn some tips such as making sure to keep the notification under 156 characters so it doesn’t wrap over to a second text. There were a lot of fascinating little things like that to learn.
Barclay: I am assuming you sought out this text notification system for the courts. Why?
Judge Hope: I did seek it out. I see it as a combination of providing good customer service and improving justice. I was a public defender for six years and a prosecutor for 10 years. So I’ve seen the issue of failure to appear from both sides, of how missing a court date can negatively impact someone’s life. I have seen a lot of people miss those dates and show up months after the court date and a lot of bad things have happened to them by then. Sometimes those people told me that they wanted to pay the day after it happened and tried but the ticket wasn’t in the court system yet and then it was forgotten.
Barclay: What are the best features of the court text program?
Judge Hope: The cost and ease-of-use. We talked about using a text notification feature from our current case management system which is Tyler, but it would have been 20 cents per text. The benefit of using Tyler would have been that the text would have been backed into our system and we would not have to upload the excel spreadsheets. But, the difference in cost made us go a different way and it is easy enough now to upload the spreadsheets. My court has approximately 17,000 criminal traffic cases per year so the affordability was worthwhile to us.
Barclay: Tell us more about the benefits to the public of this text notification system.
Judge Hope: The text system provides cost savings especially for the Title 40 offenses. For speeding tickets, we are now required to mail the person a notice if they do NOT show up on the initial date of their citation before we can take any more action. Mailing a notice is a cost, but if we spend one cent on a text and the person remembers and shows up, then that is one less postcard that we have to send. We also hope to eliminate the cascading penalties of missing the court date: the late fees, the penalties of license suspension or arrest (all of which are expensive to individuals and to the county). So I think there are a variety of ways in which text notification benefits the public at large and the courts from a cost savings perspective and from an improving justice perspective.
As the state grapples with misdemeanor bail reform, it has been tough to evaluate ‘failure to appear rates” county by county. For example, because my court is held every week (not true nor needed across the entire state), I will hold on to a bench warrant for seven days because if a person misses Monday, as long as they come Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or the following Monday, at arraignment, they are not really impacting justice. In that case, we can still arraign them very easily. Thus, my current data from our text notification system shows that for the uniform misdemeanor citations that started as of July 2019, people that were cited showed up over 80% of the time either on their court date or within seven days of their court date.
Our unified government in Athens Clarke County meets a lot and we have talked a lot so now our State and Superior Court Judges are seeing how our text notification system is working and now those courts are going to start using a text notification system. Our Clerk, Beverly Logan, uses the Icon system and I think that company has quoted her four cents per text so she is going to use that. However, she and her team are going to mimic a lot of our practices and our paperwork.
Barclay: Is there any improvements that you’d like to see to your current court text reminder system?
Judge Hope: I do wish we had simultaneous email and text notifications. The texts are great reminders but some folks in our courts do not have a lot of resources. They might have a cell phone number, but they might not always have minutes (that is why robo calls do not always work). But even if someone doesn’t have minutes, they’re usually going to be able to access a text message. Some people don’t have a cell phone, but they have an email address. And that email address never changes. Even if they’re homeless, they might go to the local library and check their email.
Barclay: Any final story or advice to your colleagues before we close?
Judge Hope: One thing that happened recently we had a new clerk running the text system on Monday. And on Monday we have a morning calendar and afternoon calendar. And for that afternoon calendar, everybody has an in-hand notice to come to the court at 2pm–these are cases where they have already shown up once and are coming back with written notice for a second appearance from the last time they were in court. However, the new clerk sent out the text for everybody to come in the morning. We had 20 people show up on the morning calendar who were supposed to be there at 2pm because those people paid more attention to that text notification than the written notice which they had signed. Luckily, they were not inconvenienced. We were able to pull those cases and still deal with them in the morning. But to me, it was fascinating to see what works.
As for advice, building a text reminder system from the ground up works best. You definitely have to have your local law enforcement (your police department, your sheriff’s office, and other stakeholders) involved because without the collection of the phone numbers, you cannot be effective. We just recently created an online portal, so people (where the officers didn’t request their phone number) can still enroll for notifications. Thus, now people can submit their number and they will be enrolled. See: https://www.athensclarkecounty.com/FormCenter/Municipal-Court-10/Court-Date-Reminder-System-Enrollment-600