In January of this year, the Justice Management Institute began working with the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender to facilitate strategic planning and evaluate its Early Representation Program (EarlyRep) in Richmond, California. EarlyRep is a program designed to provide immediate representation for persons with misdemeanor offenses – before their cases are heard in court – in order to avoid arrests and jail time for indigent defendants and prevent the many, associated collateral consequences, such as loss of employment, interruption in medical care, and lack of supervision for their children.
The majority of criminal cases in the country are not felonies but low-level crimes charged as misdemeanors. Misdemeanor cases, therefore, have a big impact on our court systems, other criminal justice stakeholders, and the lives of the individuals charged with those crimes and their families. Collateral consequences of criminal convictions can have an especially damning effect on this vulnerable population. Housing can be lost, special licenses can be revoked due to a criminal conviction. Multiple court appearances or short-term incarceration, either because of a warrant or the sentence for a conviction, can have detrimental effect on lives.
In Contra Costa County, most misdemeanor cases begins with an arrest where, instead of taking the person into custody, the police officer issues a citation with a date to appear in court. The officer picks the date to appear, generally six weeks from the date of the citation in order to give the district attorney time to review and decide whether to file a complaint. The average time between arrest and first appearance in misdemeanor cases in Contra Costa County is approximately 6-7 months. Those who cannot afford private counsel must wait until the first court appearance before counsel is appointed. The need for representation during the time between arrest and first appearance is readily apparent. Earlier provision of counsel can prevent warrants from being issued and crucial investigation can be lost. Too often, however, the defendant will not appear for that first arraignment date. Sometimes it is because a defendant showed up to court on the date noted in the citation and no complaint had yet been filed. Other times, the notice to appear was sent to an old or wrong address. Language barriers and a lack of familiarity with the criminal process may also result in the defendant mistakenly thinking that the officer let him or her go and no formal charges would ever be filed.
EarlyRep was successfully launched in by the Public Defender Office in the eastern part of Contra Costa County in July 2016 where the office partnered with the Antioch Police Department to identify potential clients as early in the process as possible. The project in Antioch successfully contacted hundreds of individuals facing misdemeanor charges who are facing potential misdemeanor charges. The Antioch Police Department was instrumental with the outreach efforts by distributing informational cards about the project and by facilitating early access to the citation forms themselves. The Contra Costa Public Defender office had further grown its effort by collaborating with Uptrust, a company located in California, to provide text message reminders of upcoming court dates for defendants. The project, through its early outreach and through the services of Uptrust, helped to prevent the arrests of individuals by making sure that they get to court when they are supposed to.
Although still early in its development, the Antioch project has seen the failure to appear rate reduced from 57% in misdemeanor cases from the Antioch Police to 33% in the seven months that the program has been up and running. With a multi-year grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, under its Smart Defense Initiative, the Contra Costa Public Defender is expanding its effort to include the City of Richmond, bringing together a broad partnership including the Richmond Superior Court, the District Attorney’s Office, the Richmond Police Department, and the Reentry Success Center. EarlyRep will reach a far larger scale in Richmond taking on a number of issues that lead to individuals with misdemeanors getting arrested and jailed over basic misunderstandings about whether and when charges have been filed against them. JMI has already helped to shape some of the program design and target outcomes, continuing to work with the Contra Costa Public Defender and the leaders in Richmond to identify the efficacy of their work and the overall impact on the lives of residents and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.