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New year, new text alerts remind defendants in Palm Beach County about upcoming court dates

Posted at 7:14 PM, Jan 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-01 23:40:42-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — WEST PALM BEACH – Miss a court date in Palm Beach County, and you could get thrown in the slammer.

In 2017, 14 percent of all people booked in the Palm Beach County Jail were booked for failing to show up to court. That’s according to data provided by the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, and right now, they hope to change that trend with text message reminders.

“You know how we get text reminders for doctor’s appointments and dentists appointments? Well, many people miss court inadvertently. They just forget about it,” said Bert Winkler, a former, longtime criminal defense attorney who now works with the CJC on jail reform. “We’re trying to rethink our local jails. We’re trying to reserve the jails for people who pose a risk to public safety and are also a flight risk.”

According to Winkler, it costs Palm Beach County taxpayers $135 to house an inmate. Plus, even after just a night or two in jail, an inmate is at risk of losing his or her job, kids – even their home.

“Many people that have these low-level offenses are really just struggling to survive,” said Winkler.

However, thanks to Winkler’s research and a grant, anyone arrested for a crime in Palm Beach County will now receive text message reminders for all upcoming court dates.

All they have to do is a sign a consent form, and defendants will get reminders seven days out and the day before a hearing. If they still miss court, each defendant will get another reminder telling them to contact their attorney.

While Palm Beach County is the first in the state to text defendants about court dates, other courthouses across the country have implemented the same or similar programs. Research shows it’s working to help keep people out of jail for failing to appear.

“I’ve seen data showing anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent, up to 70 or even 80, 90 percent, depending on the jurisdiction,” said Winkler.

The company handling the text message alerts, Uptrust, is based out of Massachusetts. They are assisting Palm Beach County Clerks and the CJC in a year-long pilot program, thanks to a grant from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization.

Defendants will be able to also get alerts in Spanish or Creole and can opt out at any time.

According to Uptrust’s website, more than 30 percent of defendants text back after reading the alert. The number one response? Thank you.