In 2014, 41% of the approximately 320,000 people issued a ticket for a violation or low-level misdemeanor in New York City, also known as a criminal court summons, did not take the required responsive action. Depending on the particular violation, this is either appearing in court or pleading by mail. The consequence of failing to respond to a summons is the issuance of a warrant by the police, regardless of violation severity. Summons-level offenses run a wide range of minor infractions encountered in daily life in New York City, from littering to disorderly conduct to drinking in public places.
Because issuing warrants is costly and inconvenient for both the police and recipients, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), in partnership with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA), asked ideas42 for inexpensive, easy-to-implement solutions that can reduce failure-to-appear rates.
We took a two-sided approach to tackling this problem: redesigning the standard summons form to make it clearer and easier for people to respond appropriately and creating text message reminders to make planning for the court date more manageable and reduce failure-to-appear rates.
Behaviorally-informed modifications to the summons form included moving the most important information from the very bottom to the top of the form, making the negative consequences of failure to act prominent, and using behavioral language to encourage recipients to show up to court or plead by mail. We found that the redesigned summons forms reduced the failure-to-appear rate by 13% in a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s New York Crime Lab. An in-depth look at the before-and-after versions of the summons form is available here.
In partnership with the Crime Lab, text messages were designed to impact the rates of court appearance through timely reminders to summons recipients. We diagnosed the behavioral barriers leading too many people to miss their court dates and therefore receive a warrant, and designed helpful messages to overcome these barriers. We discovered that the most effective reminders, which combined information on the consequences of not showing up to court, what to expect at court, and plan-making elements, cut failure-to-appear rates by 26 percent.
This collaboration is one of the first applications of behavioral science in the realm of American public safety and justice, and its promising results indicate that this is only the beginning of the promising effects behavioral insights can have on outcomes for good.
We are grateful for the generous support of this work by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). To learn more about how behavioral design can be used to improve public safety and justice programs and policies, read the full report of this work.