Durham County is testing whether reminding people about their upcoming court dates will reduce overcrowding at the county jail.

The new notification system will be funded by a $50,000 Safety and Justice Challenge Network Innovation Fund Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It will be the only system of its kind in the state, says Gudrun Parmer, director for the Criminal Justice Resource Center, the lead agency on the project.

With the grant in, Parmer says Criminal Justice Resource Center staff decided to “do something very different and focus on our court system rather than the jail itself.”

The optional Automated Notification System will send free text messages or phone calls to remind people of upcoming court dates. “There are a number of people in our county jail because of a failure to appear,” Parmer told the Durham County Board of Commissioners Monday night before they unanimously approved a budget amendment to get the grant on the books.

Parmer said the project is in its early stages; CJRC hopes to have the notification system in place within the next three months. The pilot program is expected to run for a year while staff monitor how many criminal court dates are missed and how many people are jailed for failing to appear.

Typically, when a person misses a court date, their bond is revoked and an order for their arrest is issued. The person is then, in some cases, jailed under a higher bond because they missed court.

“People forget things. It’s only human,” Durham County Clerk of Superior Court Archie L. Smith, III said in a news release. “Medical providers generate appointment reminder calls to insure that health needs are timely met. We will provide reminder calls such that legal obligations can be timely addressed.”

County officials are hoping the system will save money. According to Commission Chair Wendy Jacobs, the county spends $110 per day to house one inmate at the Durham County Detention Facility.

Out of four hundred and fifty-nine people currently incarcerated there, eighty-two are listed as having failed to appear for court, including ten who have FTA as their only charge. According to jail records, two inmates have spent sixty-three days in the DCDF with failing to appear being their only listed offense.

Durham County was selected in February to join thirty-nine other communities in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Buncombe County and Mecklenburg County are also participating.

The challenge aims “to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails,” according to the program’s website.

The Criminal Justice Resource Center will partner with the Durham County Manager’s Office, Superior Court, District Court, the District Attorney, and the Public Defender’s Office to roll out the program.
Once it is up and running, people can sign up for the notification system in court or through their attorney. Parmer also hopes to roll out an online signup platform.