A Plan to Reduce Bench Warrants—By Text Message

In a two-year pilot program, one county reduced bench warrants by 25 percent.

In a two-year pilot program, one county reduced bench warrants by 25 percent. Shutterstock

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After success in one county, Minnesota is rolling out a statewide program that sends reminders to defendants about their court appearances.

A program that sends email and text reminders of upcoming court dates will expand statewide in Minnesota after a one-county pilot significantly reduced the number of bench warrants issued for people failing to appear.

The eReminder program debuted two years ago in Hennepin County after officials there brainstormed ideas to reduce “repeat business” in the court system. One way, they thought, would be to cut down on missed appearances, which would in turn reduce the number of warrants issued for people who don’t show up for their court dates. The key solution they set on was rooted in a common experience: the endless reminders from medical offices in the days leading up to an annual exam or teeth cleaning. 

“We started talking about what happens in our own homes when our doctors and dentists send us appointment reminders,” said Marcy Podkopacz, director of research and business practice for the 4th District Court in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis. “Even though we’re organized people … we have busy lives, we sometimes forget. Our clients, our customers in the court, a lot of times have chaotic lives, and if we can do something to help get them to court that is not going to be involving other law enforcement, or jail, that would be to everyone’s benefit.”

By statute, the court is required to ask defendants for their contact information, including their address. The county began asking for cell phone numbers and email addresses as well, then gave defendants the choice of opting into electronic reminders. (Those reminders do not replace the court’s formal notification, a piece of paper that defendants must acknowledge by signing.) People who choose to participate receive a message with the date, time and location of the courthouse, but no identifying details.

“They’re very generic messages. They don’t identify the defendant and they don’t have the case number,” Podkopacz said. “We did that deliberately in case someone gave us the wrong number.”

The timing of the messages depends on the court. For criminal cases, an initial reminder comes three days before the court date, with a follow-up the day before. By contrast, in family court, the first message is a week before the hearing, with a second reminder the day before. 

More than 25,000 people have opted into the program since its inception, roughly a 50 percent enrollment rate. Since 2017, the number of bench warrants dropped by 25 percent. Courts also saw a 35 percent decrease in defendants failing to appear. Those results came relatively cheaply—the system cost $230,350 to develop over two fiscal years, with an additional $19,550 in operational costs. That money is easily offset by the projected savings, as the county estimated that missed court appearances alone were costing roughly $1.4 million per year.

The system will go live across the state on Oct. 11, though details of implementation will vary from place to place (some courts, for example, will only allow defendants to join online). The move is a first for a state court system, though Podkopacz thinks others may follow.

“It isn’t a very expensive way of getting an extra service to people,” Podkopacz said. “People have talked about sending reminders out. People have done postcards. But no one else has done electronic text and email until we started doing it.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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