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xcenterpiece People in jail cells

This  Post-Dispatch file photo shows people being held in jail.

JEFFERSON CITY — In a new bid to reduce local jail populations, the Missouri Public Defender’s office will launch a pilot project that sends text messages to defendants reminding them of their court dates.

The $37,000 project, initially focused on St. Louis and four other cities, is designed to ensure defendants don’t miss court dates and other legal appointments where their absence might lead to a failure to appear charge and jail time.

“Missouri jails are full, and the irony is that many of these defendants are not supposed to be in jail in the first place,” said Missouri Public Defender Director Michael Barrett.

The program also could help reduce the amount of money the state spends on subsidizing local jails for holding Missourians who are serving pre-trial detention sentences and who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime, Barrett said.

Missouri lawmakers and the state court system have been grappling with criminal justice reforms, including the imprisonment of people who don’t have money to pay off what are known as “board bills.”

Under a law going into effect later this month, local courts no longer will be allowed to put people behind bars for failing to pay previous jail debts.

In some Missouri courts, if defendants did not show up at those hearings, or failed to make payments on their jail debt, they risked re-incarceration — and additional jail bills — even after fulfilling their original sentence.

The practice persisted in some local courts, even after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in March that board bills could not treated as court costs under state law, “and the failure to pay that debt cannot result in another incarceration.”

Under the new law, jailers will be required to go through a civil-collection process to collect board bills.

The practice of jailing people who didn’t pay their board bills was exposed in a series of columns last year by Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger.

The texting program is a joint venture by the Public Defender’s office and Uptrust, a Massachusetts-based company that has done similar work in Florida, California and Oklahoma. The program is backed by the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel and the Missouri Bar Foundation.

Along with St. Louis, other jurisdictions involved in the pilot include Columbia, Jefferson City, Troy and Kennett. Supporters hope the technology will be eventually offered throughout the state.

“As the pilot progresses in Missouri’s first five offices, we hope our technology will continue to make a positive impact across the state, while also saving both taxpayer funds and public defenders’ time,” said Uptrust founder Jacob Sills.

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