The Hennepin County Public Defender's Office recently implemented a new service aimed at getting people to court in order to avoid jail time.

The eReminder program, created and run by tech startup Uptrust, sends automatic reminders about upcoming hearings and allows clients and attorneys to talk to each other in real time in a single digital space.

The goal is to reduce the number of bench warrants judges issue for the arrest of people who miss court dates, a common practice meant to encourage defendants to appear in court.

"When people miss court it's not because they're out committing new crimes. It's because they couldn't get off work, their car broke down …," said Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty. "Any time you can avoid a bench warrant it's a good thing for the client and the system."

The public defender's office and Uptrust partnered this year in the wake of George Floyd's May 25 killing by Minneapolis police. It's the first county in Minnesota to use Uptrust, which went live in 2016 and operates in 498 counties across the country.

Uptrust donated a year's service to the county for free. The program will cost $1,500 per month afterward if the county chooses to continue.

"Like many Americans, we were shaken by the death of George Floyd this summer and confronted with the painful reality that systemic and structural racist systems still thrive in this country," said Uptrust co-founder and CEO Jacob Sills. "It's really good for society to be putting less people in jail."

Oftentimes people arrested for missing court are charged in low-level, nonviolent crimes, Moriarty said, adding that a day in jail can cost them their job or housing.

It costs the county $153.60 a day to house an inmate, according to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. This year, the jail averaged 535 inmates a day, which was affected by efforts to maintain a low population because of COVID-19.

Last year, the jail averaged 695 inmates a day. The numbers included people jailed for alleged crimes and for failing to appear in court. Arrest data for failure to appear were not immediately available.

Public defense clients will be automatically enrolled in the program if they provide a cellphone number, Moriarty said. The office handles about 36,000 cases a year.

Uptrust will sync automatic reminders to the client's case file. It will also allow attorneys to personalize messages and permit clients and attorneys to message each other in real time through the Uptrust app instead of personal cellphone numbers or e-mails.

If clients are running late or facing obstacles such as child care or transportation while their attorney is in court, they can alert their attorney who can better respond and seek leniency from the judge, Moriarty said.

The app shares similarities with a text and e-mail reminder program created and implemented three years ago by Hennepin County District Court officials.

Moriarty said Uptrust will be more effective because it allows two-way communication, while the court's reminders don't. The new service will also engender more trust because it's overseen by the public defender's office and not the courts, she added.

"The court reminders took us part of the way," she said, "and this is the next step."

County court officials said last year that their program cut the number of bench warrants issued in Hennepin County for failing to appear by about 500 a month, and that about 25,280 unique users had enrolled in the program. Updated numbers were not available.

The county program was adopted across the state last year.

"The Hennepin County District Court developed the eReminder program in 2017 with enthusiastic support from a variety of justice partners, including the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office," said Hennepin County Court Administrator Sarah Lindahl-Pfieffer. "We view the program as a valuable tool. … We welcome any efforts to help provide equal and equitable access to justice."

The public defender's office began using Uptrust about two weeks ago and has already seen benefits, Moriarty said, noting that one attorney connected a client with their probation officer and avoided a probation violation.

Uptrust remains in use at the first office to employ it — the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Public Defender's Office.

"It's tremendously effective," said Blanca Hernandez, the office's deputy public defender.

Hernandez said the program syncs all exchanges between clients and attorneys with client case files and allows conversations, which are protected under attorney-client privilege, to be downloaded as a PDF file.

The app makes communicating easier than exchanging text messages and e-mails through personal phone numbers and e-mail addresses, she said.

"You can e-mail and you can text individually, but if you're balancing hundreds of clients the automatization is great," Hernandez said. "I like having all of my communication in one place."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib