It’s getting harder to forget a dentist’s appointment these days, no matter how much you’d like to. Instead of relying on you to write your next appointment in a calendar, or mailing you a postcard, dentists now commonly use a combination of phone calls and text messages to make sure you don’t forget to show up.

Dental and medical offices have learned, probably the hard way, that they can save money and operate more efficiently if people who make appointments actually keep them. The same could be said of our court system.

The state is spending millions every year to jail people for accidentally failing to show up for court hearings. L.D. 1516, a bill that would introduce a phone-based reminder system similar to what’s used by doctors and dentists, is a good-sense reform. It directs the courts to develop and implement a text-message notification system that would provide information on pending court cases, including the date, the location of the court and the consequences of not showing up.

The estimated cost of the system would be $335,000 over two years, but there is a lot of experience that suggests it would be money well spent.

Twenty-five times a day, on average, Maine jails take people into custody for the crime of failure to appear in court. According to research by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, it’s one of the most common reasons for being held in jail: Over 20 percent of inmates awaiting trial are jailed for not showing up for a previous court date – and no other charge.

It would be one thing if these were primarily bail jumpers who are trying to avoid the consequences that await them in a courtroom. But the research shows that is not the case. The bulk of these inmates have more in common with someone who forgets about a dental appointment than with a fugitive from justice. Issuing warrants for people who failed to appear or pay a fine ends up costing the state court system millions of dollars every year and has no deterrent effect on the large number of offenders who never intended to break the law.

The cost to the state can’t compare to the costs to the individuals who are facing these charges. Being held in jail disrupts their lives, making them likely to lose their jobs, miss drug treatment or otherwise fail to meet their responsibilities. A lengthy stay in jail can get you evicted or cost you custody of your children. Those consequences makes a defendant more likely to agree to plead guilty just to get out of jail, giving them a criminal record that a judge would consider if they ever end up in court again.

This spiral of high bail, pretrial detention and premature guilty pleas makes it even harder for someone to overcome a mistake, and crowds jails with people who really don’t need to be there.

Other states have experienced dramatic declines in the number of people held for failure to appear in court after introducing reminder systems like what is being proposed in Maine. Several have reported 50 percent drops in the number of people held in jail missing a court date or fine payment – saving their jurisdictions much more than what was invested in the equipment.

A phone-based system is more effective than the current reliance on mailed reminders, because phones are mobile and people tend to keep them when they move. And a live phone call is even better because it gives the person facing a charge a chance to ask questions.

No system is perfect. Even today, not everyone has a cellphone. And some people intentionally fail to show up in court and need to be held in jail in order to protect the integrity of the system.

But before wasting millions of dollars  jailing people who don’t need to be jailed, the state should at least try to do as much as a typical dentist’s office.

It’s time for Maine to modernize the notification system.

 


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