Crime Lab New York New York City Summons Project

In 2014, nearly 40% of people issued a ticket (or “summons”) in New York City for a violation or low-level misdemeanor failed to appear in court.

When an individual misses a court date, the courts typically open a warrant for his or her arrest, based on the assumption that defendants miss court deliberately. But there are alternative hypotheses for why people fail to show up: going to court is an obligation, like others, that human beings can forget. If this behavioral bottleneck accounts for some failures to appear (FTA), then it may be possible to reduce FTA without resorting to the usual penalties.

Using insights from behavioral economics, we are collaborating with the New York State Office of Courts Administration and the design lab ideas42 to test whether simply reminding people about their court dates might be an effective (and far more humane) way to reduce avoidable warrants. We are evaluating the effectiveness of a new form that highlights date and time and reinforces the potential criminal consequences of failing to appear, and we using a randomized trial to test different text-based reminders.

If effective, these simple modifications may reduce the number of individuals who are being needlessly caught in the criminal justice system.