Antioch police hand out these colorful cards when they issue misdemeanor citations. (Devin Katayama/KQED)
Jason Alston was 21 when he was issued a misdemeanor citation by Antioch police for a hit-and-run in the summer of 2015. A few weeks later he showed up to court on the date written on his police citation. That's when he says a court employee at one of the windows told him there were no charges filed against him. So Alston went home thinking his case was cleared.
“Several months later my mother gets a call saying there’s a warrant out for my arrest because I missed my court date for my misdemeanor, and we were all confused,” he said.
In 2015, more than half of those charged with misdemeanor crimes investigated by Antioch police missed at least one court date. Many people, like Alston, didn’t even know they had a court date, according to public defenders.
“We were seeing this over and over again,” said Ellen McDonnell, an attorney with the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office.
McDonnell knows that missing court can lead to financial penalties, including arrests, and has seen how failure to appear disproportionately hurts people of color and those with low income. That's why her office decided to partner with the Antioch Police Department in a program that's seen success and is now being replicated in another Bay Area city.
Why Aren’t People Showing up to Court?
When police issue a misdemeanor citation, the officer also writes a court date on the ticket approximately six weeks out. But the district attorney's office has a year to file charges and rarely does so by the time written on the citation, McDonnell said. Instead, if the DA decides to file charges, it's often months later.
But people, like Alston, often show up to court and think their case has been closed. Or they are unsure what’s supposed to happen next, said Blanca Hernandez, an attorney with the Early Representation Program in the public defender's office.
“There’s a lot of fear and a lot of confusion,” she said.
By the time the district attorney’s office files charges, many people have moved addresses or have life circumstances that make it a challenge to get in touch with them, Hernandez said.
“A lot of people are hard to track down, and that’s primarily people who have serious drug addiction problems and transient people,” she said.
How the Early Representation Program works
Contra Costa public defenders have partnered with Antioch police since July 2016 to run the Early Representation Program. The idea is simple: When officers issue misdemeanor citations, they also hand over a small colorful card with information in English and Spanish about how to reach the public defender's office, which would then help guide clients through the court system.
Contact cards were created that could fit in an officer’s pocket but that didn’t look affiliated with the police, said Hernandez.
“Obviously, there’s some hesitation by lots of people to call a phone number that’s been given to them by the police officer that just cited them,” she said.
The cards' bright green and yellow colors make them stand out. In large letters the card encourages calling or texting the public defender’s office. The office also picks up every citation issued by Antioch police weekly at the station so attorneys can reach out to clients directly.
Since the partnership began in July 2016, the team of just one attorney and one assistant has helped almost 900 people who have been cited or arrested for misdemeanors in Antioch. The court appearance rate for arraignments has jumped from 43 percent in 2015 to 69 percent since the program began, Hernandez said.
Human and Court Cost Savings
Missing a court date goes on the permanent record and has the potential to impact future court decisions, Hernandez said. Failing to appear could also have residual effects on employment, child custody, financial loans and housing, she said.
Also, when someone fails to show up in court, a judge will sometimes issue a warrant for arrest, which is what happened to Jason Alston.
“I was terrified,” Alston said. “I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I expected the worst. But the public defenders got everything clear for me.”
The Early Representation Program is also meant to provide pre-hearing advice that could help soften rulings by the time the case reaches a judge. For example, if someone receives a drug- or alcohol-related misdemeanor, public defenders may recommend attending substance abuse counseling, said Hernandez.
“By the time they do come to court, they’re more likely to have a better sentencing offer from the district attorney. They’re less likely to be taken into custody that first time,” Hernandez said.
The program could mean huge cost savings for taxpayers, too, said McDonnell. The early outreach could prevent the more than $100 daily cost to incarcerate someone in county jail, as well as court costs to process warrants and schedule hearings where no one appears, she said.
The Early Representation Program Also Helps Police
When people fail to appear in court, police are frustrated, too. If the district attorney files charges, the police officer who issued the misdemeanor is often required to show up to court.
“You have to drop everything,” said Capt. Diane Aguinaga, who oversees field services for the Antioch Police Department. “You have to find child care. You have to find rides for your kids. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. You have to go.”
When the public defender’s office contacted Antioch police to partner for the Early Representation Program, “it was an immediate yes,” Aguinaga said. “It was a no-brainer. There was no downside to this at all.”
The Program Spreads to Richmond
The idea for the partnership was born from AB 109, which redirected responsibility for low-level offenders from the state to counties. Contra Costa agreed to spend $150,000 on the program, which included hiring an extra attorney and assistant.
The program is now being piloted with the Richmond Police Department with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The public defender’s office is considering expanding to other cities in the county.
“I think this program is the future,” Hernandez said. “We want the program to succeed so that it is replicated statewide and countrywide.”