More than 9,000 people are jailed in Maine every year for one simple reason: They didn’t show up for a court date.
And while some of them are ducking their responsibility to appear before a judge, many others simply forget, are confused about the process, are sick or lack transportation or child care that would allow them to get to court, according to a 2018 study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. More than 20 percent of all pretrial detainees in Maine are there on a charge of failing to appear and no other crime, the study concluded.
Something commonly used by doctors, dentists and hair stylists across Maine — the text message appointment reminder. The ACLU study’s author, Senior Researcher Emma Findlen LeBlanc, said while some may feel the notification system coddles defendants, she sees it as a way to reduce the county jail population and eliminate the need for an estimated 20,000 warrants per year issued by judges when someone doesn’t show up to court.
“There’s a sense of, ‘Well, if they don’t show up it’s disrespecting the court,’ ” she said. “This isn’t an attitude problem. This is a technical problem. Most people are not fugitives from justice. They have busy lives.”
LeBlanc’s proposal that the state move to a court reminder notification system earned legislative support last year and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in June. But it has yet to get off the ground, in part because the Legislature didn’t fully fund the position that’s needed to oversee the implementation of the program.
State Court Administrator Ted Glessner told lawmakers in February that the judicial branch needs a full-time position to oversee the text messaging system. In the two-year budget approved by lawmakers last year, only half of the money needed to cover the position for two years was allocated, so it has never been filled, he said.
The judiciary is now requesting the other half in Mills’ $127 million supplemental budget. The system overseer’s annual salary would be $85,000, according to Glessner.
Glessner said the impact of the system would be significant.
“When you think about court hearings, a lot of times the folks who need to be in court may not be like me with three calendars and someone reminding them all the time they are supposed to be someplace,” he said during a review of the supplemental budget by the Appropriations and Judiciary committees. “(If) people don’t get up in the morning and they don’t get to court, then you have a situation of failure to appear. In the worst-case scenario, someone can be apprehended and locked up. We’re trying to avoid that.”
In addition to some of the money needed to fund a new position, the Legislature last year allocated a little more than $91,000 to pay for a one-time licensing fee and $18,530 for ongoing maintenance of the text message system, Glessner said.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley urged lawmakers to find the funding for the full-time position during her January State of the Judiciary address. She told lawmakers that the notification system will be part of a larger $16.8 million e-filing and case management upgrade set to be implemented in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties later this year before it’s expanded statewide.
“If that project is funded, we would expect to see a substantial reduction in the number of bench warrants and arrests that occur when people fail to appear in court,” she said. “That system would improve public services and reduce the strains on Maine’s jails, all at a very modest additional cost, and we hope you will support it.”
For more than eight months, Pine Tree Watch has examined Maine’s county court system to look for instances of fairness and consistency across the state. We found that sometimes, how a case is handled in one part of the state differs significantly from how it is adjudicated in another, in part because of elected district attorneys who implement their own policies or a lack of available staffing or programs.
By introducing a text message alert system, the state could reduce the number of people held in jail for non-violent crimes, regardless of where those crimes took place and who is in charge of the district.
LeBlanc said her October 2018 study of Maine’s failure to appear rates started as a much bigger project on pretrial incarceration. But what she found after attending arraignments, reviewing court records and interviewing attorneys, defendants and bail commissioners led her to narrow the study’s focus.
“One of the things that became readily apparent is failure to appear is a huge driver of pretrial incarceration in Maine,” she said.
Her study estimates that courts, jails and police spend about $3 million a year to process people who don’t show up for court, including issuing warrants, holding hearings and taking up jail staff time with additional bookings.
“Police should be able to focus on protecting our community from genuine threats to public safety, not tracking down (failing to appear) defendants,” she wrote. “Jail staff is already overburdened with high numbers of inmates with mental health and substance use issues.”
From the defendants’ perspective, missing a court date can mean more time in jail and higher cash bail, making it less likely they will be able to get out quickly, according to LeBlanc’s study. She also noted that failing to appear is not a “dangerous crime” and that locking up people who are not a threat to public safety contributes to jail overcrowding.
While testifying last year to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in support of the legislation creating the notification system, Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Executive Director Tina Nadeau noted the tendency of some defendants to enter a guilty plea to avoid additional jail time.
“Once arrested and unable to post the new cash bail a judge has set on their warrants, criminal defendants often feel compelled to resolve their cases as quickly as possible to try to avoid — if they can — losing time at work, being unable to timely pay rent, or losing custody of or time with their children,” she wrote.
That leads to a guilty plea “and a complete relinquishment of all their Constitutional rights,” she wrote.
Nadeau said while a notification system would not solve all problems that lead people to not show up to court, the association feels it would “help ensure that more people are aware of their hearing dates in advance and able to make the necessary arrangements to be there on time.”
Not all defense attorneys feel a text notification system is the answer.
Darrick Banda, an Augusta lawyer who specializes in criminal defense work, doesn’t think spending taxpayer money to remind people to show up to court is a good investment. Defendants who have an attorney are much more likely to make their court appearances, so the system would be most effective for those who do not have legal representation, he wrote in response to emailed questions. Even then, those defendants are given a written notice to tell them when to come back to court, according to Banda.
“There is always something in writing given to defendants by the court telling them when to next appear,” he wrote. “Text messages sent by the courts to these folks may help, but it is all premised on the assumption that their phone numbers haven’t changed (they often do with this category of defendant) and that they are going to give the text more attention than the piece of paper handed to them telling them when to be in court.”
To address concerns about defendants who might not have phones or whose phone numbers change, LeBlanc recommended asking police to get a backup number from defendants so a friend or family member could also receive the reminder.
Banda said those who do end up in jail after being picked up on a warrant for failing to appear often get back out fairly quickly unless they are facing a serious offense. He also noted that many of the statistics on failing to appear include people picked up on warrants who fail to pay fines or restitution.
“These are people who have exhausted their rights, been found guilty (either by plea or trial), and the courts are chasing them because they haven’t paid what they were supposed to,” he wrote. “Again, these folks are usually given every chance to comply with court orders before a warrant issues. If they can’t follow simple instructions, I don’t know how much more a text will help them.”
Text reminder systems for court dates are in place in more than a dozen states, including Virginia, Indiana, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Washington, according to a May 2019 story by The Associated Press. In New York City, a pilot program that sent text messages with information on what to expect in court and what happens if someone does not make an appearance resulted in a 26 percent drop in the number of no-shows, the AP reported.
Maine House Majority Leader Matt Moonen (D-Portland) sponsored the text notification bill, LD 1516 “An Act to Improve Efficiency in Communication in the Court System,” which received the approval of the Judiciary Committee and ultimately the entire Legislature and governor.
He said he worked with the ACLU and Judicial Branch to craft a simple solution already commonly used by dentists and others in the private sector. And like dental appointments, court dates are often scheduled weeks or months in advance, he said.
“Anything we can do that is modern and works for people in everyday life and the court system as well is a good thing,” Moonen said.
The idea also was backed by Republicans in the Legislature, with Sen. Lisa Keim (R-Dixfield) — the lead Republican on the Judiciary Committee — calling it “a very good idea.” But she also noted that eventually, she hopes the system won’t need a full-time person to oversee it.
“There are some of us, however, that question the need for one full-time position to handle an automated system,” she wrote via email. “It seems that this role could be combined with other (information technology) once the initial system is set up.”
Glessner said the person hired to oversee the system will not only be someone well versed in information technology but also a project manager who will develop, implement and maintain the system. The plan is to roll out the text message reminders along with the updated electronic case management system, possibly by the end of the year.
Like the updates in case management, the text reminders will first be used in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, giving the courts a chance to see what works best, Glessner said. That could mean one text reminder a week before a court date or more than one if that’s what seems to help people remember their appointments, he said.
“One of the goals is to not have people in jail who don’t have to be there,” he said. “They are required to be in court, so we need them to be there for the court date.”