An overwhelming number of criminal cases, from minor crimes to some felonies, play out like this: A person is arrested, booked into jail and brought into court where a judge explains their charge. They plead not guilty, and then they're released on bond or on their own recognizance. They're told to return for another court date. Many do not return.
Then a judge issues a warrant. The police eventually find and arrest the person, who is again booked into jail, hauled into court and released again. For some people, that cycle repeats three, four, five times before the case is resolved.
It's a drain on police and court resources, for sure, but being repeatedly arrested and booked into jail has serious consequences for defendants as well. Maybe they lose their job or their housing. Maybe they lose guardianship of their children.
Spokane County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski believes he may have a simple solution: text messages.
Earlier this month, the Spokane County commissioners approved a $40,000 contract with Uptrust to implement an application that will send court-date reminders and other information about the person's case via text.
The $40,000 comes out of the $1.75 million grant that Spokane received from the MacArthur Foundation to help reduce its jail population.
Half of the money will go toward initial set-up costs and the other half will cover the program in its first year.
Under the current system, Krzyminski says, some defendants are notified by upcoming court dates via snail mail, either from his office or from the court itself. Mailed notifications from the public defenders will continue for those who don't have phones.
"I think there can be hesitancy to cooperate with the court, so this will say 'We need your phone number because your lawyer has to be in touch with you," Krzyminski says. "If you choose to reply, you're going to be replying directly to your lawyer."
He says the goal is to reduce the number of failures to appear in court, "which are huge here."
Earlier this year, the Spokesman-Review reported that there are currently more than 10,000 active arrest warrants in Spokane County for failing to appear on minor charges.
Similar text-messaging reminders have shown success in other jurisdictions. A study of a text-reminder program in New York City found a 26 percent drop in failures to appear.
"And hopefully it'll have some impact on the jail population and case processing as well as the collateral consequences to people booked into jail," Krzyminski adds.
Initially, 10 public defenders will test out the new program beginning as soon as next week.