HANCOCK COUNTY — In 2018, one of the main reasons people went to jail in Hancock County was simply because they missed a court date.

Whether through defiance, forgetfulness or because they simply didn’t know they were supposed to be in court, people who skipped hearings were picked up 411 times last year. It was one of the top 10 complaints lodged against people being booked into the jail. Only probation violations (646 bookings) and operating a vehicle while intoxicated (443) occurred more often.

Starting in January, the county court system began efforts to reduce the churn of defendants re-entering the jail because they missed court dates. They started using a state messaging system called Odyssey Case Management System to text defendants and remind them of upcoming court dates.

Failure to appear in court can result in an arrest warrant being issued by a judge. Court officials say the reminders are an effective way to reduce failure-to-appear rates. The reminders are also designed to ensure fairness to defendants as they navigate the court system. And at a time when the jail population is at an all-time high because of shifting sentencing strategies, anything the courts can do to keep a person out of jail means that’s one more spot that’s freed up for someone else.

Halfway through 2019, 206 complaints for failure to appear have been lodged. Judge Dan Marshall of Hancock County Superior Court 2 says it’s too early to tell if the alert message system is really working.

“I think we need to give the system at least a year before we start comparing numbers to see if it’s working,” Marshall said.

Still, if the system gets even one person to attend a hearing they might otherwise have missed, it will be a productive system as far as Marshall is concerned.

The fact the Odyssey alert system is free to use, and easy for court officials to manage, makes it a sensible approach, the judge said. After some time, he feels the program will make a huge difference in lowering the number of defendants who miss court dates.

The system became available in May of 2018. Hancock County is one of 48 counties now using the text reminders. Six cities in Indiana also are using the Odyssey program.

The texts are sent automatically in any criminal case in which a defendant’s cell phone number is stored electronically by the court.

Reminders are sent five days and one day in advance of a hearing. If a text message has been sent but the hearing is cancelled or rescheduled, another message is sent. Recipients can opt out by texting STOP in reply.

In modern society, nearly everyone receives text reminders for things like dental appointments and meeting up with friends and family, so it only makes since to use this type of system in the courts, said Kathryn Dolan, Indiana Supreme Court chief public information officer.

“It sounds so simple, but this could be a solution for helping with that failure-to-appear rate, and we believe it does,” Dolan said.

State officials are proud to have the system available to Indiana courts and judges, Dolan said, and think it’s a good service for communities.

Josh Sipes, Hancock County chief probation officer, said any officer who processes a defendant immediately collects his or her cell phone number.

“We then feed that number into the court system, and it gets put into the alert system, which will send a text,” Sipes said.

Wayne Addison, who handles the county pre-trial release program, said he is constantly hounding defendants who are part of his program to make sure they show up in court. He is using the new system.

Most criminal defendants he works with are getting the alerts and are showing up in court, Addison said. While they’re not at 100 percent on appearances, Addison said, it’s not far off for pre-trial appearances.

“I really do think it’s a good system,” he said.

But it doesn’t cover everyone. The vast majority of people who are getting hit with a failure-to-appear charge are defendants who are summoned to court by police officers, via a ticket, and therefore might not be getting their contact information put in the text reminder system.

“I have noticed several of those that fail to appear are the ones being summonsed, and then the judge will issue a warrant,” Addison said.

Addison is the one who reached out to the state to help the county get enrolled into the Odyssey program. County officials had it up and rolling in each one of the county courts Jan. 2. Addison even enters defendant numbers for those who don’t end up qualifying for pre-trial release, he said, because he knows it’s a valuable tool to hold them accountable.

“It’s a good, little extra reminder for them,” Addison said.

While most people with entanglements, it would seem, want to appear in front of a judge to get their case settled as soon as possible, some defendants just don’t show up and will then get saddled with a failure-to-appear complaint. But, despite every effort by the courts to help the defendants appear as scheduled, some are only hurting themselves when they don’t show up, Marshall said.

“It doesn’t frustrate me because it doesn’t affect my life,” the judge said. “What I tell them is, ‘it affects your life.’”

© 2019 Daily Reporter