Article: Small “Nudges” Can Boost Defendants Showing Up for Court Dates

NYC Use Small “Nudges” to Reduce Missed Court Dates

Missing scheduled court dates or appointments is a persistent problem in many areas. In New York City, as many as 47% of criminal defendants given a ticket for a misdemeanor or other relatively minor offense fail to show up when scheduled. This may not only lead to an arrest warrant being issued, but also can count as a separate violation, punishable by a $250 fine and up to 15 days of jailtime. And it protracts the defendant’s involvement in the criminal justice system.

A recent article in Science magazine reports even relatively minor redesigns of criminal summons forms can increase the odds that defendants will come to court on the designated date for their hearings.

The article reported on two large-scale field studies conducted by a team of researchers in New York City. In one, the court summons form was redesigned by moving the court location from the bottom of the form to its top, and by adding a prominent, bold-face notice that failure to appear would result in an arrest warrant being issued (previously, that information had only been on the back of the summons form).

In the second field study, the revised summons form was accompanied by a series of text messages sent to defendants in the week before their scheduled court appearances. The redesigned summons form was found to cut failures to appear by 13%, and the redesigned summons form combined with the text messages reduced no-shows by 21%.

Researchers also used follow-up laboratory experiments to study both the old and the revised summons forms to gauge how quickly people could identify, and how well they could remember, the court information contained therein.

They also examined the beliefs of laypersons and experts about whether failures to appear were intentional and how these beliefs affected their support for nudges to reduce failures to appear. Among their findings: laypersons tend to view failures to appear for a court date as relatively intentional, although experts do not, but the general layperson view reduces public support for initiatives to boost awareness of court dates instead of cranking up punishments for failure to appear.

How to Encourage Defendants to Attend Court Dates

The study estimated that such modest “nudges” have helped prevent at least 30,000 arrest warrants from being issued over a three-year period (from August 2016 to September 2019). Another advantage of showing up to court when summoned: about two-thirds of persons who do so wind up getting their cases dismissed, rather than facing open arrest warrants.

The researchers also cited what they called “suggestive evidence” the measures were more effective for residents of lower-income neighborhoods, and more warrants were avoided for defendants living in poorer neighborhoods with higher proportions of Black and Hispanic residents.

About the Author

limmerlawScott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.