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Public defenders plan texts to remind clients of court dates

Posted at 7:05 AM, Aug 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-19 08:05:11-04

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Public Defender's office plans to experiment with sending text messages to defendants reminding them of their court dates in an effort to reduce the number of people in jail.

The project is designed to ensure defendants don't face jail time for missing court dates, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The program will begin in St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, Troy and Kennett.

"Missouri jails are full, and the irony is that many of these defendants are not supposed to be in jail in the first place," said Missouri Public Defender Director Michael Barrett.

In some Missouri courts, if defendants don't show up at scheduled court hearings or other legal appointments, their absence has led to failure to appear charges and jail time. They sometimes received bills to cover their time in jail.

In some cases, people who failed to make payments on their jail debt risked re-incarceration and additional jail bills even after fulfilling their original sentences.

Under a new state law going into effect later this month, courts won't be able to jail people for failing to pay previous jail debts.

The practice persisted in some local courts even after a March ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court that board bills could not be treated as court costs, meaning failure to pay could not result in more jail time.

Under the new law, jailers will be required to go through a civil-collection process to collect board bills.

The texting program is a joint venture by the Public Defender's office and Uptrust, a Massachusetts-based company that has done similar work in other states.