A pilot program in Hennepin County court that sends text messages and e-mail reminders to people about upcoming hearings has reduced the number of arrest warrants being issued and is expected to roll out statewide this month.
The two-year effort in Hennepin County, possibly the first of its kind in the nation, has cut the number of bench warrants issued for failing to appear at hearings by about 500 a month, court officials said.
"We know that warrants have a lot of consequences for people," said Sarah Lindahl-Pfieffer, administrator for the Fourth Judicial District, or Hennepin County courts. "We also knew that people just forgot about court."
The program has been embraced by defendants and the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office, which represents about 80% of the felony and 50% of the misdemeanor cases charged in the county.
"It's done really well," said Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty. "Why wouldn't we do that for court dates when every business you can think of … they'll call you, they'll text you, they'll e-mail you to remind you of your appointment."
The effort began in 2016 when Lindahl-Pfieffer began investigating services the county could provide to reduce the number of bench warrants.
Lindahl-Pfieffer and Moriarty said people miss court dates for several reasons, from forgetting the date to conflicts with work and child care to fear of the court system.
Lindahl-Pfieffer hit on text messages and e-mail reminders as a solution given their use for doctors' and dentists' appointments but found that they apparently had not been employed by any court system in the country. (Other states have since reached out to Hennepin County to learn about its model.)
"It was kind of a newer concept" in the courts, Lindahl-Pfieffer said. "This is such an easy technology."
The county introduced the eReminder program in July 2017. About 25,280 unique users have enrolled their phone number, e-mail address or both in the program.
Defendants are given a form at their first appearance in court asking if they want to list a phone number or e-mail in the eReminder program. In criminal cases, a reminder is sent three days in advance and a second reminder is sent one day before a hearing.
The 160-character message includes the location, date and time of the hearing along with a phone number and website link for questions. An option to opt out of the reminders is also provided. For privacy reasons, names and case numbers are not included.
Pierre, a Hennepin County resident, subscribed to the service in 2017 for reminders about several traffic and family court cases. Pierre asked to be identified by his first name to protect his privacy because of multiple pending cases.
"I used to always miss my court dates because I couldn't remember it," Pierre said. "Ever since they started this, I never missed a court date because I always get reminded."
Pierre estimated that he's been arrested up to 20 times in 10 years for missing court dates for driving after revocation offenses. He said he'd spend up to five days in jail, and that each arrest would cost him $100 to $300 after fines, fees and other expenses.
The experiences left him demoralized and incapable of caring for his nine children, who range in age from 15 years to 3 months.
"They get a little extra aggressive with you when you have a warrant," he said. "I'm just like: Over a traffic ticket?"
Defendants in court sign and receive a paper notification of their next court hearing, which can sometimes be scheduled several weeks to months into the future.
The paper form is the court's official record of notification and remains the basis for any bench warrant. Paper notifications continue to be distributed in tandem with eReminders. Judges and their clerks do not receive information about who has signed up for eReminders.
Hennepin County District Judge Kerry Meyer, the presiding judge of the Fourth District's criminal division, said the service doesn't let people off the hook. Instead, she said, it holds them accountable and ensures the system works for everyone, including the public.
"We can't get to sentencing if we can't get to the defendant in the courtroom," Meyer said. "This is how we get closure for everyone, the victim, the defendant."
While some hurdles remain — some people change phone numbers frequently (numbers can be updated in the system), some people remain skeptical of court efforts, and eReminders are not available in probate court or in some civil cases — court officials are optimistic.
"We get that the eReminder isn't going to solve all of the reasons and help get people to court," Lindahl-Pfieffer said, "but hopefully it helps most people."