Lafayette Parish criminal justice officials are touting a court-alert system that has increased the number of defendants who appear in court when they’re supposed to, and as a result cut the number of judge-issued warrants for court no-shows.

In September, deputies with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office started a service where they call defendants one week before their arraignments or for other pretrial court dates. The calls, placed weekly, have bumped up the number of defendants who show up for appearances in the 15th Judicial District.

The numbers tell the tale: In September, when the program started, 48 percent of defendants scheduled for appearances showed up; in October, the number was 62 percent.

“This 14 (percentage point) increase in court appearance rates was a low-cost solution to the high failure-to-appear rates,” said Julio Naudin, communications specialist for Sheriff Mike Neustrom.

The court-alert program came about through meetings of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. The committee was started by Neustrom and is made up of people from different agencies that deal with crime: law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, jailers, clerks, judges, city-parish officials and others.

Deputies, called information officers, call defendants about a week before the scheduled hearing for a reminder. Deputies also answer questions.

“In this … process we have actually reduced the number of phone calls we would have normally received about parking, court rules about cellphones (they cannot bring them into court) and courthouse location,” said Rob Reardon, director of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.

Justice committee officials started looking at the problem in the summer, Naudin said. In April, May and June of last year, only an average of 56 percent of those scheduled to show up for arraignments were in the courtroom when a judge asked how they pleaded.

“This lack of appearance can slow down the entire criminal justice process,” Naudin said in a news release.

Officials studied programs across the country that were starting to use reminder phone calls to increase court appearances.

“This is similar to getting a call from your doctor reminding you of an upcoming appointment,” said Holly Howat, executive director of the criminal justice committee. “Some places have an automated call system and others have a live caller. We chose a live caller process to be housed in the Sheriff’s Office.”

Sheriff’s deputies who were already on the payroll were assigned to place calls each week on already available phone lines, which meant there were no additions to the budget, Naudin said.

Naudin said the increased criminal court appearances have led to fewer dollars being spent on government personnel needed to handle missed court appearances.

“Our criminal court system requires defendants to appear in court and as their legal representatives, we want them there,” said Paul Marx, chief public defender for the 15th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office.

“As a member of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, we were not surprised that a reminder call will help increase turnout and reduce the cost of arrest for people who forget about court,” Marx said.