Hennepin County public defender clients with misdemeanor cases in Minneapolis soon can get free rides to court, thanks to a $50,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The MacArthur Foundation, which focuses on social issues and is known for its "genius grants," awarded the money to the county and city as part of a warrant reform project called Hitch Health designed to remove a barrier to defendants showing up for court dates.

The free rides will be offered beginning in January.

Jeanette Boerner, first assistant Hennepin County public defender, said economic barriers often keep defendants from going to court. It's expensive to park downtown, they may not have a license or be able to afford insurance, or child care may fall through at the last minute.

"A lot of times they have so many crises they're trying to deal with" that something has to give, Boerner said.

When a defendant doesn't show up in court, the judge issues a warrant for their arrest. Typically they get picked up and spend the night in jail, spiraling them further into a web of problems, she said.

Getting defendants to court on time also should make judges' schedules less congested with rescheduled appearances, Boerner said. Some defendants will receive rides to go downtown and meet with lawyers before their court appearance.

The money is expected to cover some 3,000 rides. Boerner said the pilot project will continue until the money runs out.

The grant proposal was written by Mary Ellen Heng, deputy Minneapolis city attorney, and is part of the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge in 52 cities and counties across 32 states. The challenge is trying to stem the misuse and overuse of jails, which the foundation calls a "fundamental driver of over-incarceration in America."