As first year students at Vermont Law School (VLS), Zachary Dayno and Scott Rowland took a field trip to the Windsor County Courthouse in White River Junction with their Criminal Law class. Sitting through a session of arraignments, they were shocked at how many people failed to show up to answer to criminal charges against them. Each absence resulted in the issuance of an arrest warrant—thus putting the defendant in further jeopardy and placing yet another administrative burden on an already overburdened judiciary.
As they left the courthouse, Professor Robert L. Sand remarked that it seemed incredible there are systems to send text or voice reminders to people for doctors and dentists appointments, yet no similar system exists to remind defendants of court dates. That got Dayno and Rowland thinking about how to develop such a system.
As Vermont Schweitzer Fellows—and with Sand serving as their academic mentor—Dayno and Rowland are working on a pilot notification system to help individuals in Windsor County get to court on the correct day and time, prepared to face the judge. Ultimately, they want to break the recurring cycle of pre-conviction imprisonment that besets many low-income Vermonters, who often have difficulty focusing on anything other than meeting their day-to-day basic needs.
Aside from notifying individuals of their court date, Dayno and Rowland, whose community site is Windsor County Pretrial Services, want to include other helpful information including what to expect at the court appearance, what to wear, and directions to the court house.
“The more we can demystify the court process for people and make the courts more accessible, the more effective we will be at reducing the stress for people headed to court who do not know what to expect,” Dayno said.
“We believe that our project will help chip away at the many barriers low income individuals face when navigating our judicial system,” said Rowland.
Initially, Dayno and Rowland struggled to find a technology partner, until VLS Professor Oliver Goodenough helped connect them with Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, which is already piloting Wise Messenger, an automated text message system that notifies individuals of their court dates, elsewhere in the country. Dayno and Rowland were thrilled to find that Margaret Hagan, director of the design lab, was interested in piloting the system in Vermont. They expect to launch the program in the spring.
“We’re excited for the positive impacts a well-designed program like Wise Messenger can have on our community,” said Rowland. “We’re looking forward to rolling out the pilot program and getting feedback about how it helped get community members to court.”
If the program is successful, Dayno and Rowland envision an expansion to a statewide system.
“This seems like a no-brainer to us,” said Dayno. “The pieces are there, it’s just a matter of trying to sync the technology with existing court processes and case management systems.”
As Dayno and Rowland continue preparing to launch the Windsor County pilot program, the Fellows expressed gratitude for the many people who have helped along the way. To their surprise, people they had no personal connections to before the project were both generous with their time and encouraging about the project.
“We have received an incredible amount of support from state employees committed to improving the judicial system as well as other academic institutions in developing our project,” said Rowland. “I think the outpouring of support is testament to the recognized need to improve the way our judicial system works for low-income people.”
As one who was fortunate to have had help from a number of people on his journey to law school, Rowland says he welcomed the chance the Fellowship gave him to pay it forward.
“This is an incredible privilege and being a Schweitzer Fellow has provided me an opportunity to help others in-kind,” he said.
Dayno also appreciated the opportunity to prioritize service to others.
“There are so many interesting things you can do in school and professionally, and it is easy to do really interesting work that is disconnected from those that are the most vulnerable in the community,” said Dayno. “I think that being a Schweitzer Fellow is about making the effort to listen to, be there for, and serve the people that are often overlooked in our communities.”