The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the creation of a one-year pilot program to reduce the number of failures to appear in the County of Los Angeles’ courts, directing the Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender to utilize a technology-based solution to communicate information to clients to help ensure their appearance in court.
Acting on a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the goal of this pilot is to make courtrooms and courthouses safer and keep the jail population down in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while ultimately producing better outcomes for justice-involved individuals.
Piloting a low-cost text message-based communication and engagement tool can help low-income clients appear in court and at mandatory appointments, preventing technical violations leading to the issuance of bench warrants and resulting in costly warrant execution and incarceration.
“We must take advantage of the readily available, cost-effective, emerging technologies to help reduce failures to appear and, at the same time, continue doing all that we can to keep individuals safe during this crisis,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “This is an important long-term goal in criminal justice reform and promoting alternatives to incarceration, and increasingly important given the pandemic and high volume of upcoming court dates.”
Due to the risk of COVID-19 spreading rapidly within the crowded jails, the jail population has been reduced from 17,000 to less than 12,000, a release of over 5,000 incarcerated individuals. Many of the individuals recently released have pending court dates as early as June; this expected increase in court dates adds to the urgency in reducing failures to appear, especially for those defendants from low-income communities. Moreover, reducing failures to appear is essential to avoiding re-arrests and the likely spike in the jail population that would result, which could undermine the County’s efforts to contain the virus.
“The approved pilot is a proven tool to get Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender clients back to court on time,” said Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia. “Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’s, and the Board of Supervisors’, prospective thinking will help reduce “failure to appear” warrants, decrease the number of arrests and prevent re-filling the jails with our indigent clients during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Other jurisdictions that have utilized similar technology have seen substantial reductions in failure to appear rates, with one study finding that text message reminders contributed to a 36 percent decrease in the failure to appear rate in New York City. Additionally, the savings associated with preventing failures to appear should prove to be considerable for Los Angeles County.