In 2014, nearly 40% of the approximately 320,000 people issued a ticket for a violation or low-level misdemeanor in New York City, also known as a 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 an arrest 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 riding a bicycle on the sidewalk to disorderly conduct to drinking in public places.
Because issuing arrest 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 Police Department (NYPD) and New York’s 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. The first was to conduct a rapid re-design of the city’s standard summons form to make it clearer and easier for people to respond appropriately 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. An in-depth look at the before-and-after versions of the summons form is available here.
The second part of our intervention is aimed at impacting the rates of court appearance through timely text message and phone call reminders to summons recipients. We are diagnosing the behavioral barriers leading too many people to miss their court dates and receive an arrest warrant, and designing reminders to overcome these barriers.
Thanks to funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we’ve joined with the University of Chicago’s New York Crime Lab along with MOCJ, OCA, and NYPD to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test the impact of the reminder portion of our behavioral interventions.
ideas42 is excited to measure the impact reminders have on court appearance and warrant issuance rates, and the potential it has to keep people from falling into the criminal justice system through failure-to-appear arrests. This project presents an invaluable opportunity to apply behavioral science to increasing the efficacy and fairness of the criminal justice system.