Statistics on female incarceration back in 2014 painted a bleak picture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The state of Oklahoma had the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, imprisoning 151 women per 100,000, more than double the national average of just 70 per 100,000 that year. The stakes, in other words, couldn’t have been higher for the Tulsa Code for America Brigade when they set out to redeploy CourtBot in the fall of 2016.

Beginnings in Atlanta

CourtBot is an app that gives residents easy-to-understand information about resolving citations and timely reminders about upcoming court dates.

It was created back in 2014 by the Code for America fellows working in Atlanta, Georgia and presented at the Code for America Summit that year.

<p>CourtBot being presented by the Atlanta fellowship team at the 2014 Code for America Summit.</p>

CourtBot being presented by the Atlanta fellowship team at the 2014 Code for America Summit.

Prior to CourtBot, each year in Atlanta, an average of 200,000 people got citations. Of those, 40,000 people then missed their court date, resulting in a bench warrant, which means you can be arrested for failing to appear. This means the next time a person runs a stop sign, they could go to jail. The escalating consequences of accumulating bench warrants couldn’t be more clear than in Ferguson, Missouri.

Following the launch, residents were able to solve citations in 5 minutes, not 5 hours, by texting the CourtBot number and paying online. 10,000 people used CourtBot to look up their court date in the first year of its operation. Also available in Spanish, CourtBot was the first multi-lingual platform, “in the history of Atlanta,” according to Ryan Shepard, internal consultant in the Mayor of Atlanta’s Office.

Arriving in Tulsa

Before Code for Tulsa launched the app, in partnership with the City and County Public Defender’s Office, Tulsa Public Defender Jill Webb sometimes sent text reminders to people about their approaching court dates herself.

In addition to the number of people incarcerated and the misuse of the public defender’s time, the sheer cost of unnecessary incarceration was high. At the time, a quarter or more (25-30%) of the on average 1,500 people in Tulsa County Jail were incarcerated simply to wait for their court case to be heard. The cost to the City of Tulsa was $35 to $60 a day per person to incarcerate them.

The personal cost to Tulsa residents of this unnecessary incarceration is also high. A missed court date could mean, “bond is tripled, and then they're put back in jail, they lose their job if they had it, they lose their house if they had it because they live really close to the edge,” said Webb in a recent interview.

Challenges and outcomes

Several obstacles had to be overcome before the launch, most daunting of which was navigating the court system at each level of government and understanding how the city, county, and state levels interacted with each other. Without a firm grasp of that relationship, the team wouldn’t know where to begin trying to find the data they needed.

Another obstacle was that data on upcoming court dates came from two sources, neither of which had an API, which was necessary to feed the data into CourtBot. Tulsa County’s Inmate Information Center, which had information about the population of the jail and a record of each inmate, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court Network, which maintains an information system for every court, in every county in the state.

The launch of CourtBot in Tulsa has the potential to deliver both a cost-savings for the city and county, and better government service for people who may have been imprisoned for as little as getting a traffic ticket and missing their court date to contest it.

Stopping the chain of cascading consequences that begins with a missed court date is a huge win for Tulsa residents.

To Anchorage and beyond

The good news does not end there. While preliminary data on the impact of CourtBot in Tulsa is still unavailable, another city, Anchorage, Alaska, is also working on deploying it for their citizens as well.

This was no accident, according to Code for Tulsa Brigade Captain Philip Kin. When the team set out to redeploy CourtBot, they worked alongside Code for Anchorage to rewrite some of the core code, creating a CourtBot “engine,” that could drive the application, not just in Tulsa, but in other cities as well.

The implications of CourtBot coming to other cities are huge, but Kin remains humble about the impact of his Brigade, “...when we come here and do this work [at Code for Tulsa], we're changing that one little corner that we can change.”

And that little corner will only get bigger.