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How "nudges" can help reduce failure to appear rates

October 19, 2020

Before the COVID pandemic, a great deal of focus had been placed on the use of new technologies and methods to try and reduce failure to appear rates via reminder systems. While COVID caused a pause in many such systems, a study released in October 2020 in the journal Science using pre-COVID data indicates how substantially such reminder "nudges" can help.

Co-authors Alissa Fishbane, Aurelie Ouss, and Anuj K. Shah conducted two field studies in New York City that focused on criminal summonses typically issued for the lowest level of criminal offenses. Using data from the New York State Office of Court Administration, researchers looked at over 300,000 such summons issued between January 1, 2016 and June 14, 2017. The first field study examined a redesign of summons/ticket forms. The second focused on reminder systems.

Text Reminders

The second study focused on a text reminder system giving defendants court information (date, location) and information about the consequences of missing court. Defendants were broken up into four groups: a control and three variable groups. Three of the groups received text messages seven days before, three days before, and one day before their scheduled court date that described their court date and location.

  • Control: No text messages
  • Consequences: text messages told defendants a warrant would be opened and they might be arrested if they missed their court date.
  • Plan-making: text messages told prompted defendants to plan to attend court, including marking their calendars, setting an alarm, and looking up directions (but there was no mention of consequences).
  • Combination: text messages that were made up of a mix of consequences and plan-making messaging.

The researchers found that while the control group (no text messages) had a 37.9% failure to appear rate, any text message reduced failures to appear by 8 percentage points. In addition, “consequences” (8.9% reduction in failure to appear) and “combination” (9.9% reduction in failure to appear) messages were more effective relative to the control group. The “plan-making” messages reduced failures to appear by 6 percentage points.

As noted, the use of such text reminder systems had already been put in place in various courts, but this article seems to provide substantive support for the efficacy of such systems in reducing failure to appear and subsequent issuance of arrest warrants. Related National Center work in this area includes:

The Pretrial Justice Center for Courts (PJCC) that focuses on issues related to release and appearance

Electronic Court Reminders: a 2017 paper written by a Minnesota court manager as part of the Institute for Court Management's Fellows Program which found that making multiple attempts to contact a defendant using multiple methods (phone, text, email) increased the likelihood a defendant would appear in court.

How is your court using texting or other reminder systems to address failure to appear? Follow the National Center for State Courts on FacebookTwitterInstagram, or Pinterest, and share your experiences.

For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.