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With new text reminders, Spokane County criminal justice officials hope to curtail rise in jail population

September 15, 2018

While Spokane County officials wrestle with how best to lower the jail population, a new system that sends defendants text reminders for upcoming court dates has already shown results.

Just as a dentist, doctor or hair stylist’s office might send a message days before an appointment, so too will attorneys at the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office, using an application created by Uptrust, a Massachusetts-based company that was awarded a $40,000 contract by the Spokane County Commission in June.

Spokane County Public Defender Thomas Krzyminski said the application had a soft launch early last month when 10 attorneys at the office began using the service for all of their out-of-custody clients. It will be adopted officewide later this month for all 49 misdemeanor and felony lawyers.

While it’s too early to determine with much precision how effective the program has been in reducing the number of bench warrants issued when a defendant fails to show for court, Krzyminski said the office has seen tangible results.

“It works,” he said last week. “We had a case almost immediately where the defendant was in the hospital, he had a bronchitis attack. The lawyer is standing in court and he gets an email from the guy saying, ‘Hey, I’m in a hospital.’ He tells the judge, the judge discontinues the case without warrant.”

In the past, Krzyminski said, instances like the one he described would have probably ended with the client being arrested and sent back to jail until they could see a judge and again argue release conditions. With each subsequent missed court date, it compounds and snowballs, leading to an increased bail amount and further criminal accusations, until the defendant eventually is forced to sit in jail until trial.

“Our goal is to reduce failure to appear, which drives up the jail population and fills up the docket,” he said. “Hopefully, it will also impact the case process, how long a case is open.”

Changing methods, changing times

Until now, the public defender’s office relied on a letter sent through the U. S. Postal Service, a defendant’s memory or a phone call from an attorney, if possible, to ensure defendants made upcoming court dates. But those didn’t really work, Krzyminski said.

Data provided to The Spokesman-Review by the court shows that in July, a month before the pilot program began, 18 percent of defendants on the pretrial docket on Friday mornings failed to show for their hearing.

In August – the first month Uptrust was in limited use – the percentage of failures to appear dropped to 16 percent. Earlier this year, The Spokesman-Review reported that there are more than 10,000 active arrest warrants for misdemeanor charges.

While data is limited on how many failures to appear end up in an arrest and subsequent stay in the Spokane County Jail, Krzyminski and others say it was substantial enough to warrant a sweeping change.

Judge Maryann Moreno, who’s been active in the court’s reform efforts since the grant was awarded, said internal studies and outside experts have identified failures to appear as one of the largest drivers in the seemingly ever-increasing jail population.

“For the individuals who are part of that system, their lives are not always nice and tidy,” she said. “Many of these people live in our homeless shelters. And some folks are homeless and they live in their cars. Figuring out where they’re going to sleep that night or where their next meal will come from is their way to survive. Let alone their next court date.”

It was the goal of lowering jail populations that led Jacob Sills and his co-founder to launch the application in 2016. Since then, Stills said it’s been used in about 10 other jurisdictions, including multiple counties in California and on the East Coast. Spokane County is the first to use it in Washington.

Stills said one of the features that sets Uptrust apart from the competition is that it can also remind defendants about everything else that comes along with a court date, not just the hearing itself. By filling out an intake form that asks questions about employment status, if they have children or own a car, it can curtail messages to include reminders about finding public transportation, alerting their boss about an upcoming absence or suggesting they use the court’s day care system.

“What we found is we’re getting about 90 to 94 percent of defendants to show up to court,” he said. “Up from about 20 percent who missed court. That’s a big jump.”

Stills said he hoped the county would renew the contract, which is set to expire at the end of the year. With the $20,000 installation fee out of the way, he said the only remaining cost would be the $2 fee per defendant, which in the county would come to about $20,000 a year.

In addition to text messages, Stills said Uptrust is also looking into email notifications or messages on social media in the event a defendant doesn’t own a phone.

The Rev. Walter Kendricks, the pastor at Morning Star Baptist Church, who along with other local activists has been critical of the county, was pleased to learn Thursday of the application’s existence, though he wondered if it would help jail overcrowding in the long run.

“I think it’s better than nothing,” he said. “But we can and we still must do better.”

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