Behavioral interventions or "nudges" that improve communication of critical court information may be more effective at improving court attendance for low-level criminal offenses than increasing threats of further punishment, according to a new study published in the October 9 issue of Science.
Each year, millions of citizens fail to appear in court for arrests or summonses related to low-level offenses, which in many cases drastically increases the severity and personal consequences of the original offense and pulls them further into the criminal justice system.
The results of the New York City-based study, which involved a redesign of the city's court summons form, suggest that that many failures to appear — and the millions of potentially unnecessary arrests warrants they generate — may not be due to an intentional contempt for court. Instead, simple human error in communicating court information could be at fault in at least some cases.
In New York City alone, hundreds of thousands of individuals are issued a summons for minor criminal offenses — including unpaid parking tickets, riding a bike on a sidewalk, drinking in public or trespassing in a public park after dark. Overall, roughly two-thirds of these offenses are conditionally or unconditionally dismissed when defendants attend their hearings.
According to the study's findings, relatively simple interventions — a redesign of the city's court summons forms so that critical court information was more clearly communicated and the option for defendants to receive text message notifications in the days leading up to their appointed hearing — led to a 13% (redesigned forms only) and 25% (with text message reminders) reduction in failures to appear (FTAs) over a three-year period.
"Summonses are very frequent in New York City and we estimate that these [interventions] helped avoid at least 30,000 arrest warrants being issued over three years," said co-lead author Aurélie Ouss, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Over the course of their study, the researchers estimate that nearly 20,000 people had their case fully dismissed instead of receiving an open warrant for their arrest thanks to these interventions.
"Both interventions are very inexpensive," said Ouss. "The form redesign is basically free and sending text messages to all summons recipients would cost $4,500 a year."
Many individuals fail to appear in court for their scheduled hearings, which commonly result in increased fines or even arrest warrants being issued for the defendants. According to the study's authors, 40% or roughly 100,000 people missed their court date and received arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2015. While such policies are designed to deter individuals from skipping out on their court date, with so many FTAs annually, and particularly for dismissible offenses, it stands to reason that a system focused solely on punishment is poorly targeted to improving court attendance.
According to co-lead author Alissa Fishbane, managing director of Ideas42, a nonprofit that applies insights from the behavioral sciences to address complex social problems, current criminal justice policy assumes that skipping is done intentionally.
But what if many of those who fail to appear do so due to simple human error? In these cases, policies that focus on compliance through threat of punishment may not be well suited for reducing FTAs. According to Fishbane and her colleagues, it may be more cost-effective — and humane — to improve how court information is communicated.
"Summons recipients may not be aware of the penalties or even that they need to go to court. Some defendants may forget," said Fishbane.
Working in collaboration with the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and the Office of Court Administration and New York City Police Department, the researchers evaluated whether changing the summons form could help reduce the city's FTAs.
"When we looked at the [summons] form using our lens of behavioral science, we noticed a few things. For example, next steps were not clear or easy to find" — essentially, the city's tickets were not created with the user in mind, said Fishbane. Additionally, there was often a large span of time — sometimes as much as three months or more — between when a summons was given and the scheduled court date.
"A presumption of punitive policies is that defendants often miss court on purpose. If we assume they do after they carefully weigh the benefits and consequences, then changing the summons form simply would not matter," said Fishbane.
Based on this notion, the researchers conducted a pair of large-scale experiments, starting with a redesign of the court summons form. The most important information — key messaging about time, date and location of citizens' expected appearance and the consequences if they failed to appear — were made more salient and featured prominently at the top of the ticket instead of at the very bottom. The second experiment added text message reminders to the defendants, which included notifications and details about their hearing throughout the week leading up to their court date.
Given that many other cities have summons forms and communication strategies that suffer from the same complications and design flaws that led to the high rate of FTAs in New York, the study's findings raise an important question: If such simple and straightforward interventions are so effective, why haven't similar, seemingly sensible strategies been applied more broadly in current criminal justice policy?
One of the barriers to widespread adoption may be due to an implicit bias in how the public tends to think about why defendants miss court. To better understand this, the researchers conducted a series of surveys asking both laypeople and criminal justice professionals to consider a number of "failures to act" — failure to pay a bill, show up for a dentist appointment or appear in court, for example, and evaluate how likely it is that someone who does fail to act did so intentionally or just forgot.
"What's interesting is that people tended to think that missing court was more intentional than almost all the other failures," said University of Chicago Booth School of Business researcher Anuj Shah, the study's third co-lead author.
The survey revealed that, in missing a doctor's appointment, people more readily appreciate that it could be due to plain forgetfulness. However, those surveyed believed that missing a court date was an intentional decision, rather than simple human error. What's more, these beliefs — that FTAs are intentional — are more commonly held among laypeople and not among criminal justice experts.
Why these perceptions exist, however, remain unclear.
"This belief that defendants intentionally skip court, it shapes people's policy beliefs," said Shah. "When people believe that a defendant intentionally skips court, they're less likely to support interventions like the ones we tested. They're more likely to support stiffer punishments for missing court."
According to Ouss, the study highlights just one barrier that could have wide-reaching implications within the wider context of criminal justice policy and reform, including in the bail, probation and parole systems.
"It's possible that some of them could be addressed by similar interventions. By making it easier to comply, by making sure that when people don't comply it's not unintentional, and if it is, designing interventions to address those kinds of barriers," said Ouss.
"This is where I think the work of this project is a really helpful demonstration in how we can be applying this lens of behavioral science in redesigning many aspects of the systems and communications to help people day to day, and really improve the impacts of these reforms," said Fishbane.
"I would love if this not only sparked some questioning about the forms that people have for court themselves, but really all communications the government has with their constituents — particularly where there are ramifications that are serious, and where people's lives can really be better."
[Credit for related image: Patrick Feller/ Flickr]