Low-cost solutions reduce court no-shows by 36 percent

In many jurisdictions in the U.S., missing a court appearance automatically triggers an arrest warrant. It’s an expensive problem, one New York City faced 130,000 times for low-level offenses in 2014.

New work from a team of researchers, including Aurelie Ouss, an assistant professor of criminology in the School of Arts and Sciences, found that streamlining information on a summons form and sending simple text message reminders reduced failure-to-appear incidents by about 36 percent, equating to some 31,000 fewer arrest warrants.

Broadly speaking, Ouss studies criminal-justice policymaking. Her specific aim is to determine which policies most effectively reduce crime and how to make the overall system more humane. For this work, she partnered with colleagues from the University of Chicago, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and the nonprofit organization ideas42.

The research stemmed from the notion that not everyone who misses a court appearance does so intentionally.

“Some people willfully don’t show up. Our crime policies, like threats of an arrest warrant, are designed to deter these people,” Ouss says, “but some people may either just forget or may not be paying close attention to how they are supposed to comply.”

To see how easily this behavior might change, the researchers conducted two sets of experiments. In the first, they rewrote the summons form, shortening it, placing pertinent information up top instead of at the end, and renaming it with the straightforward title, “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket.” In large letters, they added: “To avoid a warrant for your arrest, you must show up to court”—text not on the previous form.  

New York City police gradually rolled out the new summons between May and July 2016, a period during which some 60,000 people received either the old or new version quasi-randomly. The researchers compared failure-to-appear rates between the two groups and found a 13 percent decrease for people who got the new form.

For the second experiment, conducted between March 2016 and July 2017, the research team texted reminders to about 20,000 people, some of whom had upcoming appointments, others who had already missed their court dates.

The most effective pre-court messages—which happened one week, three days, and one day prior to the appointment—emphasized the consequences of not showing up and offered suggestions on how to make concrete plans for getting to court. For instance, researchers used phrasing like “Remember you have court tomorrow” and “Missing court can lead to your arrest.” Texts following missed appearances stressed the severity of the situation and social norms surrounding such behavior. These two efforts dropped failure-to-appear rates by 26 and 32 percent, respectively.

Ouss says these results are striking.

“Sending text messages is inexpensive, especially relative to the cost of locking people up pre-trial,” she says. “Redesigning a form is even lower cost—and this one-time change is even more scalable.” 

Compared with other policy domains, the criminal justice system hasn’t yet tried many similar behavioral approaches, leaving room for future research, Ouss adds.

“Message reminders and simplifying a form are simple,” she says. “This points to one avenue of criminal-justice reform that we haven’t put our finger on, which is addressing the fact that people might not be committing crimes on purpose all the time.”

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