Ba-ding! Better check that text: It could be about your upcoming court date. The New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Court Administration and the New York Police Department (NYPD) have embraced a new text notification program that reminds those who have been issued a summons when they have a court date. The result has been a 26-percent decrease in the number of failure-to-appear warrants. The city says the text reminders are part of its ongoing push to decrease incarceration rates and relieve financial hardship for low-level offenders.
In a statement issued on Jan. 24, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the “gentle nudges” that come to residents who receive a court summons and provide their cell numbers were designed to create a fairer justice system that prevents small offenses from boiling over into serious arrests or jail time.
“Little reminders can make a big difference, and these text messages will help people avoid a missed court appearance — and a warrant that could eventually lead to spending a night in jail,” de Blasio said.
A pilot project was conducted between March 2016 and June 2017, led by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and nonprofit design firm Ideas42. Residents who had court dates were randomly selected to receive text messages with different types of reminders. Using behavioral science, researchers experimented with several ways of communicating with people who have been issued a summons.
It also examined the reasons why people miss court dates, and used that knowledge to inform their communications. For example, the study found that many people suffer from what scientists call “present bias”—i.e. the perception that the immediate costs of attending court (uncertainty around balancing work and/or child care) are clearer and thus seemingly greater than the consequences of failing to appear. In some cases, there were misconceptions of social norms, specifically the false notion that missing a court date is normal and/or not a big deal.
“We’ve identified two simple, inexpensive strategies that all cities could use to help more people undertake the necessary steps to successfully appear in court,” said Alissa Fishbane, Managing Director at Ideas42. “As a result, New York City will issue tens of thousands fewer failure-to-appear warrants each year, which highlights how solutions based on behavioral science insights can effectively complement existing policies and benefit all stakeholders, including the court system, law enforcement, and most importantly, the public.”
Keeping all this in mind, the study found that the text messages that were most effective stressed the punishments for not showing up, what residents should expect in court, and even planning suggestions. When the texts were combined with a redesigned, easier-to-read summons form, failure-to-appear rates dropped by 36%.
New York is not the first state to utilize text notifications to reduce missed court dates. New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts have experimented with similar programs.
In 2016, roughly 40% of those who received summonses failed to appear in court, or about 107,000 warrants each year. But reducing the number of missed court dates is only the start, according to Liz Glazer, the director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “How do we use these insights to change the criminal behavior itself—not just the failure to show up for a summons?” she said to Behavioral Scientist. “Perhaps we should think about a different kind of approach, because it’s weird that summonses aren’t changing that behavior.”
The consequences for summonses in New York vary depending on the violation. For example, a charge of disorderly conduct can result in up to $250 in fines and up to 15 days in jail. A conviction for trespassing can result in a fine of $100 or more if it is accompanied by other charges. More importantly, a conviction can result in a permanent criminal record that cannot be expunged and can have employment and other consequences. If you or someone you love was issued a summons in New York, it is essential that you get advice from a qualified attorney. The lawyers of the Rosenblum Law Firm are experienced criminal defense and traffic ticket attorneys with offices in New York and New Jersey. Email or call 888-203-2619 for a free consultation about your case.