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New App Helps Public Defenders Communicate With Clients

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

This week Spokane County public defenders begun using a new app that allows them to text their clients about upcoming court dates. On the surface, it’s a very small thing. But if you’re a defense attorney waiting for a client in the courtroom with an impatient judge, it would be nice to have that ability to send a “Where are you?” text. And, from the client’s point of view, it would be nice to have a communication link in case something goes wrong. So the most immediate goal is to keep defendants from missing hearings and avoid being arrested on charges of “failure to appear in court.” The bigger picture goal is to reduce the number of inmates in the jail, thereby lowering costs.

On Tuesday, Jacob Sills explained his firm’s new app to the county public defenders who will be using it. Sills is the CEO of a Silicon Valley company called Uptrust. He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling to show us what the app looks like.

“It’s basically like texting people from your phone, where you can look at all your clients, you can send them messages or you can look at who’s missed court and send them a message or you can look at who has court dates coming up," Sills said. "What it is is it’s sending reminders but also facilitating two-way messaging. To be honest, if you had infinite social service professionals, social workers, they could do a lot of the work we do, but with county budgets being tight, there’s an opportunity to use modern technology to take every public defender that already cares deeply about their clients’ well being and allow them to be a social worker to some extent as well.”

This software is in use in some California counties, in Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia. Spokane is the first venue in Washington. The county is paying $40,000 to use it.

“Everyone, especially probably if you’re a judge or prosecutor, has watched a few episodes of “Law and Order” and you assume people are absconding, going to Idaho or flying to Canada, when, in reality, if most of the defendants can’t afford an attorney, they also don’t have much money for housing, food, and so we found, by and large, most of the people missing in court are not going anywhere. They’re staying within Spokane County. They didn’t show up to court because they didn’t receive a reminder. They didn’t show up to court because they forgot, because they’re trying to figure out nine million things and they were told 30 days ago and they don’t have an office to put their forms on,” Sills said.

So, he says, a timely reminder using a technology that many people already have might be exactly what they need. The client doesn’t need to download the app; he or she can simply opt in to the program and receive messages from their attorney.

Public Defender Tom Krzyminski expects as many as 10,000 people will receive the service during the first year.

“It should reduce a lot of court time in making sure these warrants are signed, put into the system, prosecutor and public defender time with communication back and forth about missed court dates,” Krzyminski said.

And there’s a second benefit.

“When the client is screened and provides their phone number and is told they’re going to receive text messages, there’s going to be a couple of questions in terms of needs, transportation, child care, maybe a reminder to notify your work that you need some time off. So when they receive the text reminder, it could say, ‘By the way, there’s drop-off child care available at the courthouse. Don’t forget: arrive 30 minutes earlier. Here’s the location for that,’” Krzyminski said.

The new system had its first success this week. Krzyminski says one of his attorneys texted a client on Monday to find out why they didn’t show for a court date and learned that person is in the hospital. He shared that with the prosecutor’s office and the judge and no arrest warrant was issued.

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