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Carlo Esqueda

Clerk of Courts Carlo Esqueda said a decrease in bench warrants issued may be linked to the use of text message reminders for court dates. 

In Dane County, individuals now have the opportunity to sign up for text message reminders to alert them about upcoming court dates, a strategy meant to decrease failure-to-appear rates.

This recommendation was included in a report from a county Diversion Work Group, comprised of Dane County criminal justice officials and leaders of organizations that work with offenders, charged with reviewing all current adult and juvenile diversion programs. The system is meant to reduce the number of people not showing up for their court appearances.

“Text messages reminders have emerged as a best practice for reminding people of their court dates,” said Carlo Esqueda, Dane County clerk of courts.

Since Aug. 1, individuals leaving their initial court appearance have the option of signing up for text message reminders. Esqueda said the technology for text message alerts was built into the system several years ago but was brought up during work group discussions as a method for addressing the number of people who miss court dates.

When people fail to appear for court, they can be issued a bench warrant for not showing up, taken into custody and booked in jail. The text message does not replace an official written notice but is an extra reminder.

“We just don’t want to see a bench warrant issued, somebody picked up and put in jail just because somebody forgot to show up,” Esqueda said.

The system is new and voluntary, so there is not conclusive data that text messages are reducing the number of bench warrants issued or affecting the failure-to-appear rates. The court issued only 945 bench warrants for felony, misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases in 2016 compared to 1,326 in 2015.

“I have no way to tell how many bench warrants came as a direct result of a failure to appear, but I do know that failures to appear are a primary driver of bench warrants issued,” Esqueda said. “Going forward, I will take it as a positive sign for the efficacy of text message reminders if I see this number decrease in the coming years.”

Bench warrants issued in 2012 totaled 1,251; in 2013, there were 1,176; and in 2014, the court issued 1,164.

Esqueda noted not all of these bench warrants resulted in arrests or jail time. People often quickly realize they missed a court date, rectify the situation and the court withdraws the warrant.

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Sauk and Ozaukee counties have also implemented a text messaging reminder system in recent years.

MaryLou Mueller, clerk of courts in Ozaukee County, also reported limited data on the program’s efficacy but generally, individuals who received text messages showed up to court dates more consistently than those who did not.

The downside of the program, Mueller said, is that attorneys and victims of crimes are unable to use the system.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, a member of the work group, said to have the text messaging system implemented so quickly moves forward the recommendations. If dental offices can text to remind people about their appointments, Ozanne said, why not the court?

“It just makes sense to try that extra effort in order to hopefully get somebody to not miss a required appearance,” Ozanne said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.