Missouri Public Defender System rolls out pilot program in hopes of reducing overcrowded jails

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MISSOURI — Five Missouri cities will be part of a pilot program that aims to reduce overcrowded local jail populations. Missouri Public Defender System Director Michael Barrett tells Missourinet his office is using a program called Uptrust, that sends text messages to remind defendants about their upcoming court dates and other legal appointments. St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, eastern Missouri’s Troy and Kennett in southeast Missouri will be used in the pilot project.

Missouri Public Defender System rolls out pilot program in hopes of reducing overcrowded jails

“For the same reason that I need a text message to remind me of my optometrist appointment that’s coming up in two days, so too does someone need a reminder that they have a court date,” Barrett says. “What we’re trying to do is make whatever efforts we can to ensure ‘Judge – if you follow the 8th Amendment, if you set bond at an amount that the person can post’ we will do everything in our power to make sure that they come back to court.”

Barrett’s office usually sends letters to remind defendants about the important dates. He says the method is largely ineffective because most clients do not have stable places to live.

Barrett thinks the new social justice communication platform could have an impact on local and state budgets.

“An automated texting service to notify clients when to show up to court will significantly improve the failure to appear (in court) rate and cut down on both unnecessary warrants and unnecessary use of pre-trial detainment,” Barrett says. “Not only does this help the criminal justice move more efficiently, it also reduces the amount of money that both the counties and the state have to spend on detaining people who have not yet been convicted of anything.”

Barrett says the state owes local jails about $43 million for holding citizens who are awaiting trial. Missouri is the only state in the nation that reimburses counties for a portion of the defendant’s entire local jail time while the person’s case goes through the court system. The catch is, the only way the jail can get repaid for the total length of stay is if the offender goes to a state prison. If the defendant is acquitted, or receives a fine, probation or a local jail sentence, the county gets zilch.

The Missouri Bar Foundation provided the more than $37,000 grant to cover test program cost.

Barrett says he hopes the technology could one day be used statewide.

“We’re going to be collecting data. We’re going to be studying the numbers. Then hopefully we’re going to be in a position to make our case to the General Assembly come January that this is a way to save the state money,” he says.

The Missouri Public Defender System has about 330 attorneys handling roughly 70,000 to 82,000 cases annually.

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