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Midstate county using text messages to get people to court

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Aug 3, 2018 5:53 PM
cumberland_county_courtroom.jpg

Inside a courtroom at the Cumberland County courthouse. (Photo by WITF's Tim Lambert).

(Harrisburg) -- A fast-growing midstate county is trying to put the brakes on the increasing number of people who fail to show up for court dates.

The solution: text messages. 

Cumberland County now requires people in the court system to sign up for text or email alerts about upcoming hearings.

The county rolled out this pilot program in the fall on a voluntary basis, but only about 100 people signed up. Cumberland County averages about 4,000 new cases per year. 

In 2017, the county issued 1,298 failure-to-appear warrants. That's up from 938 in 2016 and 732 in 2015. County court administrator Melissa Calvanelli said the increase matches the rise in caseloads, which she attributes to population growth. However, that doesn't make the warrants any less expensive. 

"Every time a defendant doesn't show up--and you have to issue a warrant--it is a cost to the taxpayers, basically, of about $1,200," Calvanelli said.

That cost comes from additional staff time, paperwork, and possibly jail time for the defendant.

The county is paying $30,000 for the text alert pilot program. Calvanelli said costs could reach $60,000 per year if they continue. 

But Calvanelli said the program will pay for itself if failure-to-appears fall by just six percent.

In case studies from counties in Oregon, Washington, and Arizona use of similar programs reduced missed court dates by 30-50 percent. 

Calvanelli said she sees the program as a courtesy to defendants, who sometimes get notice of their court date months in advance.

"A lot of failure-to-appears are not intentional," she said. "They are not a defendant who literally says, 'I don't want to go.' They are people who got busy, who forgot. But it still places a burden on the system--and on the defendant, when they're not here when they're supposed to be."

Text or email alerts are sent seven days, then one day before a scheduled court date. 

Calvanelli said they plan to review how the program is working after three months of mandatory participation. 

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania developed the program for Cumberland County as part of its Unified Case Management system. Administrators said Dauphin County has plans to join by the end of 2018.

If more counties join, it could bring down administrative costs for all courts involved. 

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