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Wednesday, September 05, 2018 1:00 am

County texting out court date reminders

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Allen County is using text messages to remind defendants about upcoming court hearings as part of an initiative designed to reduce the number of no-shows.

The Indiana Supreme Court launched the text service in May, and 33 counties have signed on. Allen County courts began sending alerts to defendants' cellphones Aug. 13. More than 900 reminders have been sent since.

“I believe these texts can help lower the number of no-shows,” Allen County Chief Deputy Clerk Chris Nancarrow said in an email. “Court dates are sometimes set out far into the future and can easily be forgotten.”

Exact numbers were not available Tuesday, but few people miss local court dates. Only about 3 percent of the thousands of hearings scheduled each year are missed, said John McGauley, Allen Superior Court executive. 

That represents relatively few cases, but even a single skipped court date can lead to added costs and wasted time.

Allen Superior Court Judge Wendy Davis said missed court dates waste the time of judges and attorneys handling the cases. She said they also set in motion ripple effects, including the issuance of an arrest warrant and police being sent to pick up the absent defendant.

Trial dates and other hearings must be rescheduled, she said, and the added action could result in paying more for an attorney.

“When they fail to appear, it just triggers all kinds of services,” Davis said.

Reminders are sent five days and one day before hearings to defendants who provide cellphone numbers on court documents.

A separate message is sent if hearings are canceled or rescheduled, according to a news release.

More than 135,000 texts have been sent since the service went live, the news release said.

Texts are sent to defendants with cases in Superior and Circuit courts.

State Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan likens the reminders to services offered by doctors.

“Your dentist's office does this,” she said. “This is the way we communicate now.”

Eric Zimmerman, Allen County chief probation officer, said the method of communication works. The county probation department has had a similar text reminder system in place since 2015, and he said failures-to-appear were nearly eliminated when the system was first tried.

“It seems to be a nice way to remind people,” said Zimmerman, who also is director of court services for Allen Circuit Court.

McGauley said 30 texts were sent the first day of the service, and 322 were sent the first week.

“It's going to speed up the court calendar and make everybody's lives easier,” he said.