70 Million

Where Texting Brings People to Court

Episode Notes

After someone is arrested, there are multiple court-ordered actions after they make bail. Often, missing any of these--especially court appearances--complicates their situation and increases their punishment. Reporter Jenny Casas goes to Palm Beach, Florida, where something as simple as texting has made a significant difference in people’s lives.

Episode Transcription

Mitzi Miller: 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. This is Season Two of 70 Million, an open source podcast about how people, neighborhoods, counties, and cities are breaking cycles of incarceration—starting with the local jail. I’m your host, Mitzi Miller.

Clips: “So I got to experience the uncomfortability of just being stuffed in a cage 

and all that. It was real scary.”

“They’re keeping people down there with rats, roaches, they got black 

mold, and we spend $16 million on it every year.”

“We eliminated cash bail bonds in the city of Atlanta.”

“There’s no one who’s been incarcerated, including myself, who has been helped by incarceration.”

Miller: Have you gone to the dentist recently? Gotten a haircut? It's pretty likely that before your appointment they sent you a text reminder. Missed appointments are a hassle for everyone involved and that's why so many businesses turn to cheap and convenient text messages to get people in the door. The criminal justice system has crawled behind other industries when it comes to texting. Reminders have always come in the mail, but a shift has been happening around the country with big results. 

Today we're going to Florida's Palm Beach County where just a few years ago, 14% of the jail population was made up of people who had been arrested for failing to appear in court. Then the county started offering to send automatic text reminders to people with open cases. The small courtesy is making a tangible change. Reporter Jenny Casas has the story.

Music break

Jenny Casas: It all starts with the apartment.

Clip: Lakeside Village presents a spacious one bedroom condo with en suite and guest bathroom, glass enclosed patio with amazing views.

Casas: When Raven Gamboa sees the apartment in Lakeside Village for the first time, she thinks, "This place is huge for a one bedroom."

Raven Gamboa: My mom surprised me. Like I didn't even know I was getting an apartment and my mom walked in there with me and she was like, "This is your apartment. You can live here forever." I was like, "What?" Like I was like, you know, I was just so happy.

Casas: The timing couldn't be better. Raven's 20 at the time and coming off a really hard year. She'd had a domestic dispute with her father and his family. She'd been in court ordered rehab for a low level of marijuana charge and she'd had her license suspended. Now all of that's finally behind her and she's ready for a new start. 

It's not exactly what she would have chosen though. Lakeside Village is essentially a retirement community and the majority of the units are reserved for people who are 55 and over. But Raven doesn't mind. The rent she'll pay her mom is a lot cheaper than a lot of places in the mostly ritzy Palm Beach County. And her new neighbors seem friendly, especially the older man next door.

Gamboa: Yeah. I would just walk past them, say hi, like he would say hi to me and stuff. And then he started knocking on my door and trying to like introduce himself.

Casas: He comes by with leftovers, lasagna and tacos. His wife introduces herself and wants to chat about Kim Kardashian. The couple ads Raven on social media: Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook.

Gamboa: It just... From there it just... They got too like comfortable and too friendly.

Casas: The husband starts commenting on Ravens posts. First, pretty harmless things like, "You know you have a friend near you. You need anything, just ask." But after a few months, the comments start making Raven feel uncomfortable.

Gamboa: It gets hard to remember everything that was happening. But he was hitting on me and sending me messages, writing on my Facebook comments and like texting and calling me and, you know, and that's when his wife would like text me a whole paragraph saying, "What's going on between them?" And she wants to divorce him. I thought it was just like something that was just like normal to go through this stuff with neighbors and not be cool with them.

Casas: About a year and a half after moving into Lakeside Village, Raven's neighbors accuse her of throwing green liquid on their video doorbell camera. They call the police and Raven is arrested and charged with criminal mischief. She spends a few months back and forth in court before accepting a plea deal. When the case is over, things are still tense between the two apartments, but Raven is less focused on the conflict. She and her new boyfriend find out they're going to have a baby.

Gamboa: Then it just turned into something that was like... Like when I got pregnant, that's when it started to like get really bad.

Casas: Raven starts documenting what's happening, pulling her phone out and recording anytime she interacts with the neighbors.

Gamboa: She would call me a prostitute from her door.

Clip: Terry! The prostitute's out! The prostitute!

Gamboa: She would just hang out outside and smoke the... It's called a dab pen here. And she would smoke it and blow the smoke on me and he'd always smoke a cigarette.

Casas: Then a year after she was arrested for criminal mischief, almost to the day, the situation between Raven and her neighbors comes to a head. On an afternoon in November, Raven goes out to walk her dog after putting on a face mask.

Gamboa: It's like a blue mask and I went, put it on. You know, it's like a stress reliever mask actually.

Casas: When Raven returns, her neighbors are outside and the wife starts taunting her. You'll hear some audio here that was caught on the neighbor's doorbell camera.

Gamboa: Saying stuff like... I guess she was saying, "That's a blue face" or something.

Clip: That's a blue face. That's a real blue face. That’s a blue face.

Gamboa: I was like irritated. Like why look at me? Why say something to me? Just leave me alone. So I threw my cup of ice water at her and...

Clip: Oh, that's assault! [Expletive] oh hang up. Oh, that's assault. Hang up. That's assault. Oh [expletive].

Gamboa: She went off screaming, "That's assault. That's assault."

Clip: That's [expletive] assault!

Gamboa: At that moment I knew I messed up, but it's just... No one's perfect, you know? Everyone makes mistakes. And if someone's being provoked every day, especially with hormonal pregnancy, you know, you're going to explode one day.

Casas: The police are called and Raven is charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor in Palm Beach. She receives an arrest on paper, summoning her to court.

At the same time the ice throwing incident happened, Palm Beach County officials were trying to reduce the jail population. A year before, the county had won a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which also provided a grant for this podcast. The goal was to cut the number of people in jail down 17% by 2019.

Bert Winkler: I don't call us overcrowded, I call us overpopulated in the sense that we don't have too many people in there for the physical plant, but we have people in there that should not be in there.

Casas: That's Bert Winkler. He runs part of the MacArthur Grant for the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, or the CJC. Palm Beach already had a solid start. When they were awarded the grant, their incarceration rate was 58% below the national average, but in some ways, Bert said that made the job harder.

Winkler: Because we're in a good position we've had to focus more on, "All right, what folks are in jail that really should not be there?" So we've really had to unpack the whole issue more than we did before.

Casas: Bert and his colleagues teamed up with the sheriff's office, the judges, the County clerk, public defenders, the state's attorney, all the players that keep the wheels of the courts turning. And while the team was focusing on the existing jail population...

Winkler: We found out that about 14% of bookings into the Palm Beach County jail are just for failing to appear in court. That's the most serious offense the person is booked in for.

Casas: That translated to more than 3,000 people in jail in one year for missing their court dates. When judges in Florida believe these defendants have missed court willfully, which is more often than not, a warrant is issued for their arrest. In practice, that means all those people are spending time in jail for something totally unrelated to the charge that got them the court date in the first place.

Winkler: It seems almost silly to be arrested for missing court and often if you're arrested for failing to appear, you don't get out again until your case is resolved. Judges often will set no bond on the warrant and they won't let you out. So we thought this was... Candidly, it's almost like low hanging fruit. It's something that we could address in a practical way fairly quickly.

Casas: That practical low hanging fruit solution is just sending out text reminders to defendants with the location and time of their next court date. It's actually three reminders. One when the court date is set, then a week before, and then the day before court. If someone still misses their court date, they get a fourth text telling them to call their public defender right away.

Winkler: We all get text messages from our doctors, our dentist, hair salon, whatever. We all get those simply reminding us of the appointment. So why do they do that? They do that for two reasons. Number one, they don't want to be inconvenienced and they want you to come in and get your service, your help, whatever you need. So we're doing the same thing. The courts, the lawyers, everyone involved don't want to be inconvenienced, but more importantly we just want that person to show up for the appointment and take care of business, whatever that business may be.

Casas: For Raven, that business is figuring out this simple battery charge against her. And at her first court date, she signs up to be one of the first people to receive a text reminder from the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

Gamboa: A man asked me, you know, if I wanted to public defender and if I wanted to receive text messages that I have court, that I have to appear in court and I approve because, you know, I forget a lot of stuff and I don't make it to places on time and I just forget, you know? I thought maybe I'd miss a day, so... Because I had court before when I had my license was suspended and I missed that day and I actually had a warrant out for my arrest. So I thought this was very helpful. I was like, "Yeah, I do. I actually do need that, sir." You know?

Casas: That court date she missed was right around her 21st birthday. She had misplaced the paper with the date on it, so she just forgot. In that case she had a private attorney and the whole thing was quickly cleared up. For this new charge, raven has a public defender who can't give her the same attention.

Gamboa: My public defender was like... I had to email him every time. Like I wasn't really getting updates from him and what was happening in court and stuff. Like I'd find out the day I went to court.

Casas: Okay, so what am I looking at?

Sean Parys: So what you're looking at is the public court event form for Raven Gamboa's cases.

Casas: I talked to Sean Parys, Raven's public defender. He's happy to see the court sending out reminders that he often doesn't have time to.

Parys: So it is really difficult to stay on top of everything. The text messaging, it saves a lot of time because I know that I don't need to call someone to remind them. I know that they're getting a reminder of it. Basically the call's being made for me.

Casas: Sean estimates that at the time he was defending Raven, he was juggling around 250 other cases.

Parys: There's only so much many hours in a day and you can easily spend an entire afternoon calling everyone to let them know about their court dates. And I just don't have the time to do that and I'd love to, but if I spent my time doing that, it means I'm not doing other stuff that I absolutely need to be doing.

Casas: But it's not just about saving public defender’s time.

Parys: Whether someone thinks it's great or just good, it's without a doubt better because it's a way to get someone noticed of a court date. It's a way to prevent that person from getting a warrant. It's a way to prevent that person going to jail for missing a court date. You don't have to be involved in the judicial system to see why it's an improvement. You just have to be, I think kind of someone who's like living in 2019 and think about, "Hm, how do I learn of things? It is usually through my phone, not through my mailbox."

Casas: I heard some version of this from every single court official I spoke with about this program. This tech service is great for the defendant. It's free, it's automated, it comes in three languages, but it's also a win for people working in the criminal courts. Not to mention the savings to taxpayers for each person who isn't housed in the jail.

Gamboa: You want to talk into the microphone? Say hi. Say hi.

Casas: Raven's baby, Sophia, is four months old now.

Gamboa: Say, "Hello, my name is Sophia."

Casas: For throwing that cup of ice at her neighbor, Raven was ultimately ordered to take an online anger management course, perform 10 hours of community service, and take a drug test.

Gamboa: I did all that stuff, turned it into them, had to pay the prosecutor $100. Just so much stuff that you're just like, "Wow. This is really how people get treated for a cup of ice."

Casas: The whole case lasted about four months from the time she was arrested to when she completed the terms of her plea deal. In that time she lost a job, both her grandfather and her stepmother passed away, she moved out of her apartment, celebrated birthdays and a baby shower, and went to countless OB-GYN appointments. And she found ways to attend or ask to have her appearance waived for the dozen court dates she was given. But it wasn't a cakewalk. Just knowing the time and location of the court date is the first hurdle. The next one is actually getting into the courtroom.

Gamboa: Getting to the courthouse was very difficult because my boyfriend would either have to miss work at 8:00 in the morning to take me there or he would have to Uber me there. He Ubered me there. He did one time and it was like $12 to get there and $12 back. I know that may not seem like a lot, but when I'm working a job minimum wage that makes $8.50 an hour and you have to pay like $24 to go to a court, you know, it's like...

Casas: And all those court dates affected her work schedule.

Gamboa: It just got to the point where when I was working on my job, I'd be like, "I have court." And they thought I was lying. They were like, "You just had court last week." Eventually a job's going to get sick of that and fire you. Even though you have an excuse, they're going to be like, "Look, you're not reliable.” You know?

Casas: Raven's not alone in all these challenges. Nationally, about a quarter of defendants failed to appear in court. Fewer if it's a felony charge, more if it's a misdemeanor.

Jeffrey Colbath: A large population, a large group of people that don't show up to court is because they just forgot.

Casas: Judge Jeffrey Colbath is one of the deciders who issues warrants when people don't come to court.

Colbath: Some people don't show up to court because they're hiding and laying low. Sometimes they're just irresponsible. Sometimes they've been arrested in another county.

Casas: Sean Parys and other public defenders I spoke with say they see that one a lot. A defendant has a court date in one county, but then they get arrested in a different county and are put in custody there. They miss court because they literally can't get out of the other jail.

Parys: Sometimes it's a glitch. Between getting released from the jail, they might get one date. Sometimes that date will get changed unbeknownst to them. Sometimes their bondsman gives them a date that's different.

Casas: Perceptions of court are also a barrier. Some people miss because they think their charge was unfair in the first place. Others fear what will happen if they show up. But all the court players I talked to named logistics as a barrier to making court dates, whether it was securing childcare, getting time off work, or finding transportation.

Parys: We have a big county and these people have their lives and a lot of them are at the lower socioeconomic end of the spectrum and so they don't have any transportation or reliable transportation.

Music break

Anthoni Cirra: How am I supposed to get to court? You know like what if you don't have any money? What if you don't have any rides? Like especially since I just got out of jail, like I just got out of jail, not yesterday, but the day before.

Casas: That's Anthoni Cirra. We met on the 10th floor of the West Palm Beach Courthouse on a Friday morning after one of his court dates.

Cirra: Well, my name is Anthoni Cirra. I'm the tallest one in my entire family.

Casas: How tall are you?

Cirra: I'm six foot eight and I'm an animal person. I actually... My nickname is lizard. I catch iguanas, gators. I caught... I have a picture I can show you too. I caught a nurse shark bare handed.

Casas: I almost didn't meet Anthoni because he almost didn't make it into court that day. His situation is a clear example how the text reminders can't account for everything.

Cirra: So this one says... There were three messages. It says, "Hi Anthoni." And this was on Tuesday, May 14th when I was still in treatment, didn't have my phone yet.

Casas: Anthoni is in Palm Beach for a rehab program and the facility he's staying at takes away his phone. So yes, in this case the texts made it to his phone, they just didn't make it to Anthony, but he had it in his head that his court date was on a Friday morning at 8:30 AM.

Cirra: And I woke up at 8:40 this morning because like, you know, I don't have an alarm clock, I don't have anything like that. And then when I woke up it was 8:40. I'm like, "Oh [expletive]. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no." And I said, "no", probably like 3000 times like almost as if it was a stutter, running in my underwear outside. I didn't even care who saw or who didn't. Ran into the office, I'm like, "I have court. I'm going to go to... Get another bond or this, that and the other." So then I called my bondsman. He's like, "You need like... Go there, go, go, go."

Casas: Someone from the facility was going to work and was able to drop Anthoni off. He was late, but he made it. Even with the hiccups particular to his situation, Anthoni told me he's grateful for the text message reminders. Still, he has ideas for how he would improve the service. He suggested an app where you can track your court dates. He also recalls someone he met in jail who couldn't read, so he thinks the courts should send out robocall reminders in addition to the texts.

Cirra: Oh wait, don't take this idea. This is a good idea. This is a Kickstarter for me. You know, but something that would say like, "Hey, you know, John Doe, you have court at 8:30 in the morning on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." You know?

Casas: Another thing Anthoni would change is putting a clear way to follow up in the text, especially if something is going wrong.

Cirra: If on these text messages you get these, but then it's like, "Okay, who the heck do I contact if I can't make it to that court date?" Like for instance for me, I just got out of jail, right? So I don't know on my case who my lawyer is. Who am I supposed to call, you know? There's no number on here so they should probably put a number because I even tried to call the number that it came from and it just said, "This is an inoperable service."

Casas: One of the third party vendors that provides the text message service for Palm Beach County is called Uptrust. Their service is usually a two-way system run through the public defender's office. Defendants can text back directly, ask questions, and get clarity like Anthoni suggests. But during the rollout in Palm Beach, the county opted for a one way system. It's cheaper and less complicated.

Cirra: This is the paper that I got today.

Casas: Anthoni pulls out the paper he was handed in court that day.

Cirra: I don't know. It doesn't even tell me.

Casas: We look at it for a long time before either of us can figure out his next court date.

Cirra: Oh, it does. August 23rd, 8:30 AM.

Casas: It's another sign that texts, for their limitations, are more effective than the paper notices mailed and handed out after court. Anthoni has missed a court date before and had a warrant out for his arrest, something he's determined to avoid repeating.

Cirra: I got in a fight. I didn't steal anything. I didn't rob anybody. Like, look at the stakes here. I'm not trafficking drugs. I missed the court date. It's a date, you know? Like that's literally like if it was date night between a married couple and they both drove separate cars and one showed up late, all of a sudden they're getting a divorce just because one showed up late to a dinner? It's court. Like I get it. It's serious. It is. I understand, but just because somebody missed it, don't put a frickin’ warrant out.

Casas: The fairness of issuing a warrant for a defendant's arrest if they miss court is outside the scope of the text message program, but those warrants are program manager Bert Winkler's main metric for measuring its success.

Gamboa: There's clearly a shift in a positive direction in reducing failure to appear warrants, which to me is the bottom line because if there's no warrant, the person won't be booked into the jail.

Casas: Right now the text message program is only available to people with public defenders. It's been running for just under a year and in that time the percentage of arrest warrants issued for failing to appear has dropped by more than half, but it's impossible to say if this is thanks to the text message service alone. There are too many other factors. The text reminders started around the same time as other MacArthur funded initiatives to reduce the jail population. Also, Palm Beach County law enforcement has been arresting fewer people than in previous years.

Casas: So while the results are promising, it's still too early to say for sure that the texts are driving the drop in warrants or if there are just fewer people in the court system in the first place.

Gamboa: I think there's two ways to look at this. The first is looking at the numbers in terms of reducing the jail population. We're going to have to get the data one, two, three years down the road to really get, I think, a full picture of what impact it's having there. But the second way of looking at this, which is equally if not more important to me, is look at the individual human being. Each person that is getting these reminders and therefore showing up for court that's not getting a warrant issued and not getting booked, which will needlessly disrupt that individual's life.

Music break

Casas: And there is reason to be optimistic. A 2016 study done by the University of Chicago on text reminders in New York found that people reminded by text of a court date are 21% more likely to make it into the courtroom. The New York study also found that what the texts actually say really matters. 

At this point, Palm Beach officials haven't focused on optimizing the texts language, but they have started planning an expansion. Palm Beach County wants all defendants, not just public defender clients, to get reminders. They also want to use the text to remind people of their pretrial service appointments and for meetings with their probation officers. For many of the court officials that support this program, the texts are small ways that the court system can acknowledge each defendant individually. It personalizes one part of their interaction with the court system and treating people as individuals gets Palm Beach County closer to Bert Winkler's definition of justice.

Winkler: I think justice means, to me, simply in the context of criminal justice system, that everyone who comes through the system gets a fair shake and is treated in an equitable manner. That is much easier said than done obviously. We have inequities in our system. We have disparities in race, in our jail, in our system, been going on for years. So it's not anything that's easy to correct or fix, but a perfect system or close to it for me would be where everyone gets a fair shake and where everyone feels that they got a fair shake as well.

Music break

Miller: Jenny Casas is a reporter based in Chicago, Illinois.

Music break

We’d love to hear about reform efforts in your communities, so please 

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70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and Casey Miner and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producers are Adizah Eghan and Cher Vincent. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our staff writer is Nissa Rhee, our intern is Emma Forbes, and our fact-checker is Sarah McClure. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I'm your host, Mitzi Miller.



Casas, Jenny. “Where Texting Brings People to Court.” 70 Million Podcast, Lantigua Williams & Co., September 9, 2019. 70millionpod.com