Butler County courts may soon use texts to take care of business

Several courts in Butler County may soon use texts to remind people of their court appearances, when fines are due and other notifications, rather than the traditional mail method they say will be more efficient and effective.

The Butler County Area Courts are the first actually in the process of implementing the new text program, according to Court Administrator Linda Lovelace.

“Every defendant who walks in the door has a cell phone, that is the last thing in the world that’s ever going to go bye-bye,” Lovelace told the county commissioners during budget hearings. “We can send out notices on snail mail until we’re blue in the face and it doesn’t matter.”

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Commissioner Cindy Carpenter summed up the benefits of the text feature, saying it will save on staff time, printing, postage and having to have multiple hearings because people miss their court hearings.

“It sounds very efficient and it sounds like it’s going to save money over time,” Carpenter said.

The text software program comes with a $4,680 price tag and the per-text cost is six cents — versus 47 cents per postage stamp. Lovelace estimated there are about 100 people a week who fail to make their court appearances, that’s about 52,000 notices — just for that classification of defendants who the court communicates with regularly — that must be sent.

Area III Court Judge Dan Haughey said the text feature should cut down on the number of defendants they need to cite for contempt, track them down and in some instances even jail them.

“I know people tend to think ‘oh you’re too user friendly, or you’re catering to the defendant’,” he said. “Practically speaking, if we don’t get the people as a pun intended captive audience, while they’re there at our court the first time, with our probation department… It’s costing everybody money.”

The Common Pleas Court has been working on a similar project for some time, but there have been some issues with the third party vendors for the software, according to Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison. He said they were quoted a price of eight cents a text — a price he considers high — so they still have to “hammer out the cost” and do a cost/benefit analysis before they proceed.

He said they plan to start using the feature only with pre-trial release defendants, then branch out to others who have business with the courts.

“We think it’ll cut down on our pre-trial release people’s failure to appear, which causes warrants to be issued, they end up back in the jail, there’s a lot of cost with that…,” he said. “We want to take small steps to make sure it’s working first, before we look at rolling it out for every case.”

Fairfield Municipal Court Judge Joyce Campbell said her court has been looking into this for some time also and there are several issues to be considered. For one, she said she doesn’t have the personnel to have a dedicated texter so they are researching whether there is an automatic system available.

She also felt eight cents was high and plans to contact the other courts to see if they can form a partnership and possibly reduce the cost to everyone.

“I wonder if we joined in with the county, if we got all the municipal courts — the Area Courts, Hamilton and Middletown — maybe we could get a discount if we did it that way,” Campbell said.

The court clerks in Hamilton and Middletown said texting hasn’t come across their radar screen yet and they don’t have any plans to implement the service anytime soon.

“At this point we’d just be watching to see how it works out and see what the benefits are and where it goes,” Middletown Clerk Steve Longworth said. “But we’re always looking for new technology that helps us be more efficient.”

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