Effective Policies Reduce the Harm of Failure to Appear (FTA)

Each year, millions of people in the United States are required to appear in court for low-level offenses. Many of these people miss their court dates and currently, criminal justice policy rests on the assumption that defendants who fail to appear to their court dates know about the punitive sanctions and weigh them when deciding whether to appear. However, evidence indicates there is a different possibility for why defendants might miss court that punitive sanctions do not address: simple human error. Although defendants are given all of the relevant information they need, they might be insufficiently aware of this information—it might not “stick” and defendants might just forget it.

In order to test this assumption, the Crime Lab partnered with ideas42 and the City of New York to conduct two large-scale field studies. The first redesigned the summons form that defendants in New York City receive for low-level offenses by moving up court information to the top of the ticket – including a note in bold typeface on the front of the form that missing the court date will lead to a warrant. In the second study, we augmented the redesigned form by sending text messages to defendants to highlight critical court information in the week leading up to their scheduled court appearance. 

According to the study, published in Science, the redesigned summons form and text messages reduced failures to appear on average by 13.2% and 21%, respectively. To put this reduction in perspective, we estimate that these very low-cost nudges helped avoid at least 30,000 arrest warrants being issued over three years. And they resulted in approximately 20,000 people having their cases fully dismissed instead of having an open warrant. This reduction suggests that a meaningful proportion of defendants who fail to appear are not intentionally skipping court, but are effectively unaware of the requirements or the consequences of failure to appear. These simple changes significantly reduced potential harm, save money,