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Public defenders launch text message pilot program aimed at reducing overcrowded jails


COLUMBIA, Mo. —Defendants in five Missouri cities will soon be receiving text messages to remind them of upcoming court dates. The pilot program aims to reduce the number of failure to appear incidents, arrest warrants, and technical violations. 

Under the partnership between Uptrust and the Missouri Public Defender’s Office, each public defender client in the pilot program will receive text reminders for their court date and other important legal appointments. 

The platform is designed to “reduce wasted taxpayer funds, improving efficiency for the county’s attorneys, and decreasing the number of incarcerations for certain violations.” The service, according to a press release, provides a communication and reminder tool similar to many modern dentist or doctor appointment applications. 

The program will be implemented in five Missouri jurisdictions — St. Louis, Columbia, Jefferson City, Troy, and Kennett — with hopes for the technology to expanded to all 114 counties in the state. 

“Missouri jails are full, and the irony is that many of these defendants are not supposed to be in jail in the first place,” Michael Barrett, the Missouri Public Defender director said in a statement. “Working with Uptrust to reduce [failure to appear incidents] is timely and cost-effective, especially as we look to reduce the $43 million our state spends on subsidizing local jails for the holding of Missouri citizens who are serving pre-trial detention and who have not yet been convicted of anything.”

Local governments spend more than $9 billion on unnecessary pretrial incarceration and an additional $1 billion issuing and enforcing failure to appear incidents, according to Uptrust. The group also noted bench warrants have been shown to become expensive and wasteful of both taxpayer and law enforcement’s time and funds. 

Uptrust touts its messaging system as having reduced failure to appear incidents by more than 50 percent in some jurisdictions, with 30 percent of users texting back to attorneys, continuing a correspondence. 

“As an advancement in technology, our platform supports the effort to keep those who don’t need to be in jail, out of jail,” Jacob Sills, founder of Uptrust, said. “As the pilot progresses in Missouri’s first five offices, we hope our technology will continue to make a positive impact across the state, while also saving both taxpayer funds and public defenders’ time.”

The Missouri Bar Foundation provided a grant for more than $37,000 to cover pilot program cost. Statewide, the Missouri Public Defender System has about 330 attorneys handling roughly 70,000 to 82,000 cases annually.