Skip to content
The Present

A top reason people go to jail is a technicality. Here’s how to fix it.

Simple “nudges” to remind people to show up for court could help keep thousands out of jail.
Two men sitting in an orange jail cell.
Credit: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Every year, millions of Americans are required to appear in court for low-level offenses, but thousands fail to show up and are issued warrants for their arrest.
  • It is often assumed that people who fail to appear in court do so purposefully, but new research challenges that belief.
  • Studies suggest that simplifying citation forms and issuing reminders can keep thousands of citizens out of jail and save state and local governments significant amounts of money.

One of the most common reasons for jail detention in the U.S. is not drunk driving, theft, or any violent crime. It is missing a court date. Most of these “failures to appear” are for non-violent misdemeanors like traffic violations or park trespassing.

Poor defendants are particularly likely to miss court dates and be sent to jail, and less likely to be able to afford bond once in jail. Locating, processing, and housing such defendants is a hassle for police and courts and a financial burden for local municipalities. Incarceration may also increase the chance that someone will reoffend in the future

“In addition to punishing the individual, it’s a huge cost to the system,” says Alissa Fishbane, Managing Director at ideas42, a nonprofit that aims to address social problems through behavioral science. “It affects not only the courts but also the attorneys, police, and sheriff’s office who all are involved when warrants are issued for missed court appearances. It costs states 10s of millions of dollars per year — just for low-level, non-violent criminal cases.”

But recent work by Fishbane and colleagues at the (Un)Warranted initiative is promising. Their work, recently published in Science, finds that simply changing how defendants are informed about their court dates can substantially reduce failures to appear.

Minor infractions, missed court dates, and jail

Every year, millions of people are summoned to appear in court for low-level offenses ranging from littering to drug possession to traffic violations. Unfortunately, upward of 30% of people miss their court date. In many jurisdictions, failure to appear automatically triggers the court to issue an arrest warrant.   

Perhaps ironically, failure-to-appear rates — and in turn, arrest-warrant numbers — are highest for low-level infractions. One estimate suggests that of the more than 2 million outstanding warrants at any given time in the U.S., around 1 million are for felonies, while only 100,000 are for serious violent crimes. Indeed, rape, and murder defendants are the least likely to miss court dates. 

Failure-to-appear laws are partly based on the idea that people who miss court do so intentionally. Indeed, the first federal statute punishing failure to appear was a response to four convicted felons “jumping bail” and fleeing the jurisdiction. Arrest warrants are thus justified as a way to punish and deter intentional bad behavior. 

This matches most people’s intuitions. According to a lab study by Fishbane and her colleagues (experiment three), most people believe that failing to show up for court is done more intentionally than failing to complete other important tasks, like paying an overdue bill or attending a doctor’s appointment.

But do people really miss court on purpose?

Interestingly, the study also found that judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys reported that failing to appear in court is generally not more intentional than missing other important obligations. Why, then, do so many people fail to appear? 

According to Fishbane, most no-shows are unintentional. “People generally want to be there. They want to resolve the case and move on.” Still, people don’t show up for many reasons. First, it can be difficult to get to court. Many people, especially the poor and the working class, can’t get time off work, have childcare obligations, or struggle to find transportation. 

Second, some don’t realize they had a mandatory court date in the first place. To understand how this can happen, it’s helpful to remember the process of handing out court summonses. Usually a police officer “catches” someone doing something unlawful, so the defendant is often nervous or distressed. Then, the officer gives the defendant a paper citation, which is often long, jargony, and may not mention the court date until the end. Even people who are aware of their court date may not recognize that they must attend in person.

Third, some people simply forget. Court dates are often scheduled 60 or 90 days after the citation. This gives people plenty of time to lose their citations or simply forget they must attend. “It’s like a doctor’s appointment,” Fishbane says. “They’re missed at similar rates. We just think of them differently — one is rescheduled, the other is a criminal offense.”

How can we reduce failure to appear?

To address this costly problem, Fishbane teamed up with the New York City Mayor’s Office and Police Department, as well as New York State’s Office of Court Administration, to conduct two field studies in New York City.

Study 1: A clearer summons. When the study began, New York City’s only way of informing defendants about the need to appear was through the two-page paper court summons issued at the time of the offense. The summons resembled a receipt. The front page focused on the personal characteristics of the defendant (date of birth, address, eye color) and the alleged offense (time, place, and violation type). The requirement to appear in court was not mentioned until the bottom of the page.

Fishbane and her colleagues worked with officials to redesign the summons in order to better highlight the relevant information. For example, the new summons moved instructions to appear in court to the top of the front page, used bold letters to notify recipients that a warrant for arrest could be issued if they didn’t attend, began the back of the page with a concise “What You Need to Do” section, and cut unnecessary information like the defendant’s personal characteristics.

Lab testing. Lab experiments verified that participants who saw the new (versus old) summons forms found the court date and time information more quickly, remembered the court date and location information at higher rates, and were more likely to recall that failing to appear could result in an arrest warrant.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Real-world use. Starting in 2016, police officers began to adopt the new forms over several months, staggering the adoption to account for potential seasonal variations in crime and no-show rates. The new forms seemed to significantly reduce failure-to-appear rates from about 47% to 41% — a relative drop of about 13%. Fishbane summarizes, “Don’t forget the importance of forms!” 

Study 2: Text reminders. About 11% (over 23,000) of defendants in New York City also opted to provide their cell phone numbers to the citing police officer. Fishbane and colleagues randomly divided these defendants into four groups. The control group received no text messages. The other groups were texted seven, three, and one day before their court date with information about the court date and location. Some texts also included a reminder that a warrant would be opened if they failed to appear (Consequences group), a prompt to plan how to get to court (Plan group), or both reminders related to consequences and planning (Combination group).  

Overall, text reminders reduced failure-to-appear rates by an absolute drop of 8%, from 38% in the control group to 30% in the reminder groups. (Defendants who provided their phone numbers had slightly lower no-show rates at baseline.) This corresponds to a relative drop of 21%. The Consequences and Combination groups were even more effective, reducing failures to appear by nearly 9% and 10%, respectively.

Over a three-year period, from 2016 to 2019, the form redesign and the text reminders helped prevent nearly 30,000 arrest warrants from being issued for failure to appear, the authors estimated.

A cheap solution to an expensive problem

These types of simple nudges seem to significantly reduce failures to appear. This suggests that defendants aren’t missing court on purpose; instead, they may not realize they have to appear in the first place, or they may simply forget. 

Led by academics, prosecutors, and judges, similar reforms are popping up in several other states. Methods vary slightly. For example, some remind people via phone calls or postcards instead of texts. But across the board, the results are consistent: Even simple reminders can lead to a significant decrease in the number of missed court dates. This in turn results in savings for state and local governments. For example, an Oregon county’s program to call defendants to remind them of their hearing reduced no-shows by 37%. The county’s $20,000 upfront cost was offset by over $210,000 in estimated savings in just six months.  

“We’re working with jurisdictions in six different states,” says Fishbane. “Regardless of political affiliation — whether you want to reduce racial disparities, reduce crime, or simply save time and money — the reaction is positive from nearly everyone involved.” 


Up Next