People who depend on public defenders in Hennepin County now have a different way to receive hearing reminders and to be able to communicate directly with their attorneys through a new partnership with a San Francisco-based company.
The technology is designed to help people make their court dates and avoid being jailed, as well as save taxpayers money.
The office of the Hennepin County Public Defender is working with a company called Uptrust, which has donated its services for a year. Uptrust’s goal is to simply remind people of court dates so they don’t end up being jailed on bench warrants or for other technical offenses, said co-founder and CEO Jacob Sills.
The messaging technology allows public defenders to communicate directly with their clients. The clients may send questions back to their attorneys in real time.
“Our goal is to make sure that in the future that no one is in jail for any of these technical issues,” Sills said. “And that we’re able to provide a supportive and easy-to-use tool for folks going through the system, but also folks like public defenders who are working in the system every day.”
Uptrust, which launched in 2016, already works with more than 100 public defenders offices in 30 states. The company says its technology has been able to cut the number of people who fail to show up for court hearings by half.
Sills said George Floyd’s killing in May helped spur the partnership with the Hennepin County public defender.
“We saw around the country billions of dollars being spent and millions of lives being impacted for technical issues,” Sills said. “Most of the folks we talk to and our users are trying their best to get their lives on track, people make mistakes all the time, but the system wasn’t really looking at a solution to help them.”
It costs about $5.1 million a year for Hennepin to jail people who failed to attend court hearings and about $1.4 million to hold court hearings where defendants don't appear, according to a 2019 report from the Fourth Judicial District. The report also found a significant personal financial impact for defendants who are jailed.
While the court system already has automatic notifications for hearings, that contact information is sometimes wrong, said Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty. She said it makes a difference that the technology would be housed in the public defender’s office rather than the court system.
“It requires the clients to give their personal information to the court, and a lot of our clients don’t want to do that,” she said.
The system allows public defenders to communicate with their clients through the website or a smartphone app, which eliminates the need for attorneys to use their personal cellphones with clients, Moriarty said.
The information can be crucial for attorneys to explain to a judge why a client has missed a court hearing, where they could otherwise risk the judge issuing a bench warrant for their arrest.
“It’s things like I lost my reminder slip, or I’m homeless, or I didn’t have transportation, or my child care failed me, or I couldn’t get off work because I don’t have paid time off,” Moriarty said. “It’s not because people wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, I just don’t want to go to court.’”
The program launched in Hennepin County last week and will run for one year. At that point, both parties will be allowed to assess whether it’s been effective and decide whether it should continue.
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