People text on their cell phones while standing on the New York subway platform
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Texting people reminders makes them more likely to show up for court, according to a pilot program in New York City.

A new study shows that texting (or rather, a series of carefully designed text messages) could help reduce the number of open arrest warrants in New York City.  

In 2014, 41 percent of the 320,000 New Yorkers who were issued tickets for low-level offenses missed their court dates. This oversight is called a Failure to Appear (FTA), and automatically results in the issuance of an arrest warrant; currently, New York City has hundreds of thousands of open warrants. And civilians may not realize that missing a court date means they can be taken into custody the next time they interact with a police officer.

Realizing there had to be a better way to address the FTA rate, the city turned to Ideas42, a non-profit design and consulting firm, and the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. The two organizations set about redesigning the summons form, clearly laying out the action required of the person receiving it, the specifics of the court appearance, and the consequences of not turning up.

But, along with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), they had another idea: to craft a series of text messages that would serve as reinforcement reminders. Rather than assume that people were skipping court because they weren’t bothered by the penalties, the city decided to analyze other factors that could lead to FTAs, such as people not paying close enough attention to the time of the court date or forgetting to schedule time off work to appear in court.

“[C]rime policy really focuses on changing people’s incentive to participate in crime,” said Aurelie Ouss, a post-doctoral researcher at Crime Lab and an author of the report. “But the decisions we make are much more automatic. Recognizing this has helped us develop policy that addresses shortcomings people have: We’re busy, we forget, we bury unpleasant things. Other policy domains have recognized this, but not criminal justice policy. Text reminders struck us as particularly effective if people just forgot they had an upcoming court date. It seems ineffective to have such a severe consequence.”

Ideas42 and Crime Lab identified four main barriers contributing to FTAs. First, people charged with low-level offenses (like trespassing in a park) didn’t think their crimes necessitated a court date. Second, attending court carries financial or psychological costs, like having to arrange for child care. Third, there is a prevalent belief that most people don’t attend court dates; and finally, it can be a long time between when someone receives a summons and when he or she has to appear (in New York City, a court date is usually 60 to 90 days after a ticket is issued).

Researchers designed different sets of texts that were intended to address all four barriers. From March 2016 to June 2017, the city texted approximately 20,000 people who had provided their phone numbers. Some people were sent texts before their court date, and some were sent texts only if they failed to appear. Recipients were randomly assigned to receive a combination of pre-court and/or post-FTA messages, or none at all.

(Crime Lab/Ideas42)

Pre-court messages were sent seven days, three days, and then one day before a scheduled court date. These messages either focused on the consequences of an FTA (“Show up to avoid an arrest warrant”) or on plan-making (“Mark the date on your calendar and set an alarm on your phone”). Post-FTA messages focused on consequences—letting recipients know that a warrant had been issued, but that they wouldn’t be arrested if they cleared it in court—or the power of social norms (“Most people show up to clear their tickets, but records show you missed court for yours”).

(Crime Lab/Ideas42)

People who received texts that focused only on plan-making were 16 percent less likely to miss their court dates than those who had received no texts. Those who received texts about consequences were 24 percent less likely. Those who got a combination of texts that used both tactics were 26 percent more likely to make their court appearance than those who had received no texts at all. The study found that although post-FTA messages on their own are helpful, and lead to a 15 percent reduction in failures to return to court within 30 days, they are not as useful as pre-court messages.

(Crime Lab/Ideas42)

“It’s a win-win all around, both for who it helps and the cost of implementation,” said Alissa Fishbane, a co-author of the report and managing director of Ideas42. Indeed, sending three text messages to all summons recipients in 2014 would have cost less than $7,500. The Office of Court Administration is now sending text reminders to everyone who provides a cell number on the summons form.

Ouss is hopeful the system will improve the more that criminal justice policy factors in behavioral science. “This is one of the first attempts to show that behavioral interventions can work in criminal justice,” she said. “If someone violates parole, we take a heavy hand. But perhaps the same mechanism [used in the texting program] can be applied [to parole] as well: Helping people be more successful in following through on conditions could be another way to avoid unnecessary harm to the person and system in general.”

The majority of American adults—87 percent nationwide and 96 percent in New York City—own cell phones. Yet only 11 percent of summons recipients provide the city with a cell phone number. “Currently, the way people provide a phone number is when they fill out their summons,” explained Ouss, “but the moment you get your ticket can be stressful. Encouraging people to provide numbers in other moments—or through a public defender or attorney—could potentially help.”

While messages have certainly cut the number of FTAs, they don’t address some of the other barriers that prevent people from making it to a court room. “If you’re thinking systematically about how we address this idea, how we help get folks to court, reminders are a really good idea,” said Rachel Foran, the managing director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “But there are other important interventions that could be put into place.” She identified tangible reasons why people don’t show up: They aren’t able to afford child care or transportation to court, or, even given enough notice, they aren’t able to take time off work. She suggested having a daycare inside the court or offering a free MetroCard as two potential solutions.

Foran also noted more intangible reasons why someone might miss a court date: a fear of deportation or of interacting with the criminal justice system writ large. “With the immigration stuff right now, it’s real; people are getting picked up in the court buildings all the time,” she said. “So folks getting picked up for small-level offenses, who normally would be willing to come back, don’t.”

According to Elizabeth Glazer, the director of MOCJ, the city is working to address the first set of obstacles. “One of the things we did along with this redesign is to extend the hours someone could come in [to court],” she said. “So folks who are working could come in in the evening, or come in earlier. And people can simply pay online if they decide they want to satisfy their ticket that way: Everybody who now goes through the civil system can pay their fees online, and everything is remote. There’s a real effort to try and make the system effective, and to not have the process be the punishment.”

Glazer listed a number of city projects in the works that intertwine criminal justice reform with behavioral science, such as improving the clarity of signage and processes within a courtroom. And for low-level offenses, she wants to see what more can be done. For example, public intoxication currently accounts for the majority of low-level offenses in the city: 34 percent of them. “If drinking alcohol in public is the issue you care about, is issuing the summons going to stop that behavior?” Glazer asked. “We’d be very interested in figuring out whether there are other ways to control behavior that people complain about—like drinking in public—[without] the issuance of the summons.”

Ultimately, Glazer said, “We’re interested in how we can have more justice and less enforcement.”

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