CIO Mohammed Al Rawi

The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office is embarking on a pilot project to expand the use of technology to reduce the number of failure-to-appear cases for criminal defendants who miss their court dates.

The tech at this point consists mainly of a programmable text-messaging system that alerts the office’s clients – most of whom are indigent and/or homeless – of their upcoming court proceedings. The need for such a notification program, intended to reduce the number of failure-to-appear cases, has become especially acute since the county has released many low-level inmates due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the risk of infection while confined.

The program, championed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, won approval from the Board of Supervisors last week and is now a pilot initiative.

“The approved pilot is a proven tool to get Public Defender and Alternate Public Defender clients back to court on time,” Public Defender Ricardo D. Garcia told Techwire. “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 refilling the jails with our indigent clients during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But it’s more than just texting; programs to do that have existed for years. In this pilot program, the county is considering partnering with a small startup, Uptrust, to use data and predictive analysis to customize the messaging and the frequency of the messages to each of the office’s clients. The pilot will run one year and cost $100,000. Uptrust already works with almost a dozen other county public defenders’ offices in California. 

“With the expected increase in heavy caseloads given COVID-19 related releases, automated devices like these will provide essential communication for a robust yet safe return to court, while the savings associated with preventing failures to appear should prove to be considerable,” says Ridley-Thomas’s motion to the board. “A study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service indicates that several jurisdictions have successfully implemented reminder programs that effectively reduced the number of failures to appear (FTAs) … .”

“Our clients are indigent residents, those who have limited to no income at all,” the public defender’s chief information officer, Mohammed Al Rawi, told Techwire in an interview. “And they most likely won’t have a computer or sometimes not even a smartphone – just a phone. The most effective way to communicate with them is text or calls, and call automation is absolutely on the horizon for the next iteration of improving communications and notifications to our clients, but texting is the immediate and very approachable solution that we think is going to be very impactful.

“The imperative here is not only the FTA … but now there are more releases because of COVID-19, and we at the Public Defender’s Office advocate to release those who do not have big offenses, to be able to safely wait until the court reopens and get their cases adjudicated,” Al Rawi said. The goal is to allow defendants “to safely wait until the court reopens and get their case processed, instead of having them in a lockup facility where the risk (of a COVID infection) is exponentially higher.”

Garcia, in an interview with Techwire, noted that “about 60 percent of the homeless in L.A. County are justice-involved.”

“The COVID19 pandemic is challenging us to reconceptualize the justice system within the larger public health framework, especially with the mandate to keep Angelenos as safe as possible," Garcia said. "Consistent with this mandate, we have advocated for the safe release of inmates to reduce the risk of exposure with in the jails.” 

CIO Al Rawi noted the reasons behind the FTA problem, a historic one for many jurisdictions – especially for those cases involving the Public Defender’s Office clientele.

“If they’re traveling outside to find shelter and food, they have bigger problems to worry about than remembering a court appearance,” Al Rawi said. “You’re worried about being able to sleep somewhere or have a meal when you’re starving. It’s not that they just don’t want to show up; they have a lot of competing priorities to survive.”

The content of the text messages will be driven by an individual’s circumstances as well as on predictive data analytics.

“This is where the technology that we’re looking at can make a huge difference,” Al Rawi said. “There aren’t many solutions designed to do this specifically. There is already texting, and there is programmable texting from multiple service providers. You use some of them to verify identity, to confirm reservations – but there isn’t anything designed for this particular issue. There are a couple of startups out there, and what one [Uptrust] has done is actually … put some analytics in there give you suggestions based on whether the person is homeless or not, what’s the severity of the case, how far they live from court – and based on that, there are some predictive analytics which create schedules for you: OK, this is a more high-risk person, so we have to get them this type of messaging, with this frequency. It’s not just sending a text message; there’s science behind how, and when, and what to send.

“There’s a lot of data that the startups have acquired that helped with finding the right patterns to avoid FTAs,” he said, citing homelessness, indigence, the type and location of the case and whether the client is from out of state, for example.

“Those [cases] can be flagged not only for messaging; there will be two-way communications: ‘I can’t make it because I’m homeless and I have no place to go in downtown L.A.’ The attorney will receive that message directly, and we can connect them with some county services for temporary housing close by, so they won’t miss the court appearance.”

The Board of Supervisors directed Garcia’s department to try the program for one year and come back with some data.

“Other things we’re looking at is doing some analytics from social media, and this can help with investigation,” Al Rawi said. “When we have a client and we do specific research online, we’re automating that.”

The board’s approval hinged on the public defender making the case for the return on investment – would the cost of the pilot outweigh all the costs associated with FTA cases?

“There are a plethora of services that provide the means for (text) communications,” Al Rawi said. “I already got pinged by several after this motion was approved by the board. But there are very few custom solutions specifically designed to address this challenge.”

Both Al Rawi and Garcia noted that this pilot program is an example of a government's business need being filled by innovation.  

“Historically, failures to appear have been an ongoing business challenge in the justice system,” Garcia said. “To mitigate the risk of a potential increase in the number of arrest warrants, arrests, and the inevitable danger of refilling jails due to the failure to appear, we are taking proactive measures by using cost-effective, emerging technology solutions, that will enable my staff as well as the Alternate Public Defender staff to assist clients in returning to court.”

Al Rawi said he’s always open to hearing from vendors who have tech solutions to pitch.