Around the country, courts are focused on improving appearance rates—to move cases forward efficiently, reduce warrants for nonappearance, and increase access to justice. To help courts discover and adopt effective approaches, the (Un)warranted team at ideas42 has crafted this four-part series breaking down leading research-based practices informed by behavioral science.


Read our previous installments on court date reminders and behaviorally designed court forms.

Grace Periods

In this edition, we’re turning to a promising practice, rooted in behavioral science, that’s ripe for more courts to take up: grace periods following a nonappearance.

Think of the number of times you’ve missed an appointment or arrived late to a meeting despite your best intentions. Maybe you got stuck in traffic, or accidently overlooked the meeting among the many other events crowding your calendar. Usually, the consequences for these misses are minor—the small hassle of rescheduling. But court users who find themselves in these same situations often face steep fines and jail time that can upend their lives.

Grace periods are a simple idea: they recognize people often miss court because of simple human error or other factors beyond their control, and provide some cushion, or slack, to remedy the nonappearance. Specifically, people are given a certain amount of time to contact the court before a bench warrant is issued. That amount of time varies, and we recommend grace periods of 7-30 days in case people are managing illness or emergencies. A good rule of thumb: provide enough time for people to receive a notification (by text, email, or mail) on how to remedy the missed appearance and to follow up on it.

Implementing a grace period can cost little or nothing, and can often involve relatively simple changes to policy and procedure. In several states, grace periods already exist by statute that courts can expand or build upon.

Grace Periods in Practice

  • In Robeson County, NC, the Superior Court holds orders for arrest until the end of that session (generally until the end of the week).

  • Georgia gives those who have missed a court date on a uniform traffic citation 30 days to resolve the issue before a bench warrant is issued.

  • New York State courts must wait 48 hours before issuing a bench warrant following a nonappearance unless there is a new charge or evidence that the nonappearance is “willful.”

Top Tips for Effective Grace Periods

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Make them consistent

While unofficial grace periods given by individual judges can be helpful in specific instances, grace periods should be standardized and consistently applied across courtrooms so that all court users have the same opportunity to remedy a missed appearance.

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Notify court users so they can act

Courts shouldn’t assume that court users will know about the grace period or what to do following a missed appearance. Actionable notifications let court users know they missed court and provide clear next steps for how they can remedy the situation. The good news? Courts can use their existing reminder systems to send missed court date notifications! Courts without reminder systems can get creative: one judge we know calls and text-messages people who miss from the bench, letting them know that if they respond in time they can avoid a warrant.

Ready to explore grace period models?

Check out the National Guide to Improving Court Appearance for more in-depth guidance and examples of grace period policies. And reach out to our team at unwarranted@ideas42.org if you’re interested in setting up a grace period and measuring the impact for your court!

Last in the series coming soon: improving appearance among court users with outstanding warrants.

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