Getting some of the hardest-to-reach populations to show up for court appearances in Nashville, Tenn., isn’t so difficult after all. Just send them a text.
“Basically, what we’re seeing on our end is homeless people; they don’t have an address, but they’ve got a phone,” said Diana Brady, program director of Pretrial Services in Nashville. “And they’re actually showing up in court.”
Pretrial Services has traditionally relied on home addresses and landlines to contact individuals about their court appearances. But “people who don’t have those, do have a cellphone,” she said.
Several months ago during a discussion about applying for a grant, officials with Pretrial Services, which is a division of the Davidson County, Tenn., Sheriff’s Department, decided that texting might be an effective communication tool. The department soon got in touch with the Bloomberg Foundation, which then helped the department organize a pilot program that began in mid-February.
What’s more remarkable, say Pretrial Services officials, is that even though internal tweaks to the program are now resulting in more clients being served, the failure to appear rate — a closely watched statistic that tracks who is not showing up for their court dates — is hovering around 10 percent, less than it was before the pilot program began.
To test the effectiveness of the texting program, clients are issued identification numbers. If the number ends in an even digit, the person gets a text alerting them of an upcoming court appearance. If the ID number ends in an odd digit, no text notification is sent.
So far, about 1,500 people are part of the test group. Of those, 136 did not appear for their court date. Of the clients who did not appear for their court date, 72 percent did not receive text notifications, while 28 percent of those failing to show up for court did receive the texts, according to Pretrial Services.
“In short, looking at the percentages of those who did and did not receive (texts) clearly indicates the effectiveness of the pilot,” said Brady. “Those who receive are more likely to appear in court than those who did not.”
The department sends about 10 texts a day, and they can also go out in various languages such as Spanish. The texts generally go out seven days from a court date and then again, one day before a court date.
“We love it. It’s huge,” Brady said of the response the department is receiving.
The shift to using text messages to communicate with the public may sound simple in today’s digital age, but it reflects the many innovative approaches government is taking to better engage residents. Texting represents a way to reach populations like the homeless as well as younger people who may not rush out to the mailbox every day.
“We’re getting a younger generation now, and we’re seeing that they don’t open their mail. But they’ll look at their phone,” said Brady.
Also, there are bits of information that can get included into the body of a text, such as links to other agencies or even documents.
“What we have found is that it works, and it’s fantastic,” said Nathalie Stiers, director of Justice Integration Services (JIS), which provides case management and technology support services for justice agencies in metro Nashville. “The thing is, we have really discovered, through this process, that this is the best way to communicate with that community.”
Other texting opportunities include sending notifications for due dates related to fines or other legal benchmarks.
“What we are looking at in JIS is building a bridge from the applications to be able to text anytime,” said Stiers. “So, now you can change your days. Maybe seven days ahead is not quite the magic number. Or maybe if you word the text a little bit differently. Maybe that helps.”
Because if someone misses a court date, an unfortunate sequence of events is set in motion — not the least of which includes a bench warrant issued for the person’s arrest.
“Often times, somebody who ends up missing a court date creates a snowball effect that would not have happened had they just shown up for that first court date,” said Stiers. “That’s huge. It takes somebody down a path that they normally would not have gone down.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.