One of the more head-scratching aspects of the criminal justice system is the ramification to a defendant of a failure to appear for a court mandated appointment.
“The person will end up in jail for missing their appearance,” said Blanca Hernandez, Contra Costa County deputy public defender. “Even if proven guilty of the original charge, they may not have spent a day in jail.”
The county has contracted with Uptrust, a private technology company, to help stop this inequity — and save taxpayer money as a result.
Jacob Sills cofounded Uptrust in order to help people stay out of jail who shouldn’t be there, per his company’s mission statement. Sills, the chief executive officer, saw that too many defendants missed their court appointments because of financial problems, transportation issues or simply no communication from the court.
“When people mess up on probation, they end up in prison,” Sills said in a phone interview. “The issues largely stem around poverty. That’s why they violate their probation. We are helping the system stay engaged with their clients.” Sills uses the word “client” when speaking of those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.
Uptrust developed an app that connects defendants to their probation officer or the public defender’s office, allowing for direct, rapid communication between the parties to allay reporting problems, including bench warrants and jail time.
Sills said that his company provides cost savings to the government, helps clients be successful and improves the quality of life for government staff, who benefit from less paperwork and less administrative hassle.
“Our job is to make everyone’s life easier,” said Sills, who added that clients do not pay a penny for his service, which is available to all arraigned defendants.
Contra Costa County has annual contracts with Uptrust through September totaling $65,000, according to Ellen McDonnell, county public defender. Sills said that McDonnell was the first Bay Area adopter of his company, with Alameda County and Marin County recently signing on.
“In 2021 there were 1,940 misdemeanor failure to appears,” Hernandez said, out of 5,667 total arraignments.
The cost to the county for one failure to appear is $847, she said, which includes court time, three hours of arrest and booking time for the officer and an average of three nights in jail for the defendant.
Hernandez noted that the county had no way to track the number of defendants who benefited from Uptrust, but if only 77 of the arraigned defendants who otherwise would have slipped through the cracks made their appointments thanks to the company, the contract would have paid for itself.
Uptrust is one of three Bay Area organizations that received a total of $650,000 in grants from the Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund, sponsored by the American Heart Association.
“This grant funding gives significant money each year to organizations that show us they are doing measurable work toward making an impact addressing those underlying factors that make good health nearly impossible to achieve in some of our Bay Area communities,” said AHA spokesperson Donna Kato.
Also receiving 2022 Tyson grant funding were Youth Alive!, an Oakland community organization that employs young people to help reduce violence in the city, and Cognitive ToyBox, a New York-based company that has created an objective approach to measuring early childhood learning abilities.
The chance to obtain grant funding is available to community groups that apply and fit the AHA search criteria, said Valerie Dao, portfolio manager of the AHA social impact funds.
“We put out a request to local organizations, hold town halls, we narrow the list down and our investment governing committee makes the final decision,” she said.
The search criteria for AHA includes evidence-based and sustainable solutions to reducing health and funding inequities. The next Tyson social impact fund window will open in early summer for the Bay Area.
Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund: https://www.heart.org/en/bernard-j-tyson-fund
Youth Alive!: https://www.youthalive.org/
Cognitive ToyBox: https://www.cognitivetoybox.com/