Would You Remember Your Court Date?

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Researchers implement program to improve court appearance rates for summons in New York City.

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“Everyone deserves their day in court”—yet when summoned to court, up to 40 percent of people do not show up.

Are these people intentionally skipping court, perhaps lacking fear or care? Recent research suggests that people miss court appearances for a more benign reason: many are unaware of or forget their court dates.

Researchers Alissa Fishbane, Aurélie Ouss, and Anuj Shah worked with New York City government offices to develop a program to improve court appearance rates. The program, which involved both redesigned summons forms and texting defendants with reminders, prevented 30,000 arrest warrants for missed court appearances over a recent three-year period.

The researchers recommend that instead of increasing punitive measures, such as fines or jail time, for missed court appearances, policymakers should devise behavioral interventions to help defendants better comply with court summons.

Compliance depends in part on how well people understand their obligations. Small policy changes could improve how people process information and behave in regulated fields such as health care, natural resource management, tax, and insurance. Opportunities for improvements in compliance may exist for traditional court settings as well.

Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah concentrated on criminal summons, which New York City issues for low-level crimes such as disorderly conduct. Police do not usually arrest defendants for such offenses but rather they give defendants a summons form requiring them to go to court two to three months later.

Missing this court date subjects defendants to an arrest warrant and the possibility of a $250 fine and about two weeks in jail. But this does not seem to keep approximately 40 percent of defendants from missing their court appearances.

Prior to Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah’s study, the summons form was the only notification defendants received stating their court date—and defendants received this single notification during the original incident, months before their court dates. The researchers took a two-pronged approach to improving the summons process, revising both the form itself and texting defendants reminders nearer to their court dates.

The previous summons form takes almost the entirety of the first page to describe the defendant, the offense, and the issuing officer before in its bottom two rows providing the court date and address. The previous summons form warns that not following the form’s instructions could lead to an arrest warrant—but provides this warning on the second page. Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah suspect that because of this design, some defendants with the previous summons form overlook relevant information and do not absorb the necessary knowledge that they should be familiar with before they to go to criminal court.

To improve the summons form, the researchers redesigned it to lead with the court date and address. They also revised the title from “Complaint/Information” to the more descriptive “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket,” moving the warning about arrest warrants for missed court appearances to near the top of the first page.

Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah also chose to put into bold typeface different text to focus the reader’s attention on more actionable information. Previous summons forms bolded text unrelated to the mandatory nature of the court appearances. The revised form bolds word such as: “Show up to court” and “Your court appearance location.”

The researchers evaluated the summons form changes by implementing the new form across New York City over 2016 in a staggered fashion meant to enable comparisons of court appearance rates for the two versions of the summons form. They estimate that changing the summons form accounted for a 13.2 percent decrease in missed court appearances.

In addition to revamping the summons form, another measure allowed defendants, upon receiving the summons, to give officers their phone numbers for text message reminders.

Defendants who opted into the text messaging option were divided into four groups: a control group who received no reminders and three groups who each later received three reminders the week ahead of their court date. Depending on the group, defendants received reminders emphasizing potential consequences of failing to appear before court, suggesting plans for attending court, or a combination of these two.

Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah found all three texting groups effective in further reducing missed court appearances, with reductions of 23.5, 15.8, and 26.1 percent respectively when compared with the control group.

Making required court appearances, and avoiding the arrest warrants that follow from missing court appearances, can benefit defendants as well as courts.

Beyond avoiding fines and jail time, defendants who can comply with their summons also escape the stigma that accompanies an arrest warrant. Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah claim that open warrants that are public records can hinder defendants’ efforts to find new jobs or secure housing. Furthermore, open warrants can lead defendants to avoid seeking medical care, reporting crimes, and requesting government aid for fear of authorities identifying and arresting them.

New York City courts also gain from greater court attendance rates. Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah estimate that each arrest warrant costs $21 in court personnel time and an additional $454 in police and judicial resources for every arrest.

For New York City, the revised summons form costs basically no more than the previous form did and sending the three text reminders costs only about $4,500 annually. Meanwhile, Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah value the savings to New York City from warrants prevented by the new form and text reminders at over $700,000.

In addition, they hypothesize that their changes to the summons process could help individuals of lower-socioeconomic status given the disproportionate concentration of summons and subsequent missed court appearances in less affluent communities. Of course, Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah also note that, although their redesigned program can help relieve some social inequities, other solutions are necessary to “address larger, structural disparities in the criminal justice system.”

In trying to explain human behavior, one philosophical rule-of-thumb suggests to “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.” Fishbane, Ouss, and Shah argue that policymakers must carefully consider whether intention or error underlies a defendant’s failure to attend court and avoid making assumptions that yield counterproductive policies. They claim that for a defendant who does not know to go to court, policies rooted in deterrence “risk merely punishing people and not deterring actions.”