December 6, 2018Article

City of Tulsa study finds text reminders increase number of Municipal Court fees paid in full, on time

by Kevin Canfield

Local/ Local Government Fellows/ 2018/

The city of Tulsa has figured out a way to get more people to pay their municipal fines: send them a text.

A six-month pilot program that ended in September found that individuals who received a text message reminding them that they had a payment due were significantly more likely to pay the fine on time and avoid additional penalties for failure to pay.

Sixty-three percent of those who received a text message reminder paid all of their outstanding fines on time, compared to 48 percent of people who did not receive a reminder, according to the city.

James Wagner, the city’s chief of performance dtrategy and innovation, said the city partnered with Code for Tulsa and the nonprofit What Works Cities to put the pilot program together at a cost of about $100.

“It proves that you don’t have to spend a year, or six months even, doing an RFP (request for proposal) for some technology that you can partner with Code for Tulsa and spend 100 bucks on text messages,” Wagner said. “You can do things that are really small scale and test it before you start investing in what you think might work.”

Each year, approximately 22,000 citations fall under the the Municipal Court’s payment extension program known as Time Pay Orders. The program gives individuals who apply up to six months to pay their court costs after their criminal cases have been adjudicated.

Still, most people in the Time Pay Orders program fail to pay their court costs in full and on time. According to the city, historically the court costs for 70 percent, or 16,000, of the citations that fall under the program annually are not paid in full and on time, prompting warrants for failure to pay to be issued to the violators.

The city estimates that the 15 percent increase in the number of on-time payments during the pilot program equates to 320 people paying outstanding fees on time and raised $187,000 the city might not have seen otherwise.

“The text reminders resulted in a win/win situation for the defendants and the department,” said Kelly Brader, municipal court administrator. “The defendants fulfilled their obligations to the court, reduced the risk of a warrant being issued and having their driving privileges (revoked) for failure to pay, and the court did not have to file additional warrants.”

Implementing the Municipal Court text messaging program was simple, thanks to Code for Tulsa, Wagner said.

“All Municipal Court had to do was go and enter about 30 names a day and their phone numbers onto a spreadsheet, and their (Code for Tulsa’s) little computer program or script would go and look at that spreadsheet that day” and create the text messages, Wagner said.

The test sample included about 1,900 people. Each received a text message once a month, sent at 5:30 p.m., to remind them of their need to make a payment. In all, Wagner figures the city sent out about 7,500 reminders.

The pilot program is a good example of the city working with the public to improve Tulsa and serves as a reminder that “we can’t do it alone at City Hall,” Wagner said.

City officials will meet next week with Code for Tulsa to begin discussing how the texting program can be expanded not only to other parts of the Municipal Court system but to other city departments.

“I think that is just a matter of finding the right partner for the technology,” Wagner said. “So it might be Code for Tulsa, it might be somebody who has already developed something like this for this purpose.”