New Perspectives = Better Outcomes.

How a detective's understanding of missed court dates
is preventing arrest and changing lives.

The shift supervisor in the precinct that day, Detective Davis,¹ was doing paperwork
in her office when she was informed that a man had just come into the police station.

He had an open warrant for his arrest, but was himself unaware of that. A fellow officer intended to arrest him.

Detective Davis swiveled in her chair, took a breath, and headed downstairs.

There was a young man in the lobby of the police station, visibly unsettled.

Detective Davis learned that the young man had previously interacted with police over two misdemeanor charges. Typically in such cases, he’d have received a notice in the mail to go to court to settle the matters, but he never received it—an outcome that is woefully common, particularly for people without a permanent mailing address. He’d gone to the station to seek help with a separate, routine issue and was reeling at the prospect of being arrested. He was particularly concerned about the possibility of missing work.

In Massachusetts where this took place, as in many states in the U.S., a misdemeanor offense results in an individual being mailed a summons to appear in court. This helps people avoid getting arrested on the spot.

Yet Detective Davis’s community sees a large number of seasonal workers who lack stable or permanent housing. Many workers don’t have a permanent address, so often by the time the court attempts to mail them a notice to appear, they’ve moved on. The undeliverable mail is sent back to the court, at which time an arrest warrant is issued. In Massachusetts, a warrant for missing court results in a mandatory arrest.

Earlier that day, Detective Davis had been reading an ideas42 research report outlining recommendations to address wealth-based barriers to court appearances. Courts in the United States have traditionally tried to incentivize people to meet their court dates by imposing harsh penalties for nonappearance, based on the presumption that people miss court because of disregard for the system.

Written by the (Un)warranted team at ideas42 working to boost court appearances, the report upstairs on Detective Davis’s desk that day identifies an alternative premise, one based on an extensive body of research: that inequitable access to wealth, resources, and information can play a major role in preventing people from making it to court. Lacking seemingly simple resources—reliable transportation and childcare, a few hours off work—can pose steep barriers to getting to court.


Detective Davis was mindful that many police officers are not aware of the conditions that can complicate someone’s ability to make it to court.

"These are such basic things. But the police academy does not train officers on what it’s like to need to get to court—especially for those who are unhoused or un- or under-employed. These realities are just not part of the education police officers are taught to deal with."

The case frustrated Detective Davis, but not for its uniqueness—she’d navigated too many of them during her long tenure working in the criminal legal system. In fact, the issue was personal—she began her career a few decades ago working as an attorney in a jail notorious for its deplorable conditions. She was part of a program piloting alternatives to pretrial detention for women—a novel program at the time, and a formative experience for Detective Davis. Operating in lockstep with a team of social workers, housing advocates, and rehab counselors, she’d advocate to the court that women who were being held simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be released from what she called “inhumane conditions of confinement.”

As such, Detective Davis has long been wary of undue pretrial detention—and the ideas42 report that she’d read that morning validated her experiences.

Detective Davis decided to intervene.


Rather than arrest the young man in the lobby, she released him and implored him to present himself in court the very next day. She made sure he understood his legal responsibilities to appear, and that he knew how to get to the courthouse—which was an hour away. Before he left, another officer slipped him a twenty for bus fare.

Detective Davis got word that the man appeared in court the next morning, and his case was dismissed with relative ease.

She came to learn more about him in time—he was a seasonal laborer who had come to that city seeking employment and had a reputation for being a hard worker. He didn’t have a reliable mailing address. Besides the two misdemeanors, his record was clean. He’d almost certainly have lost his job had he been placed into custody. And he was taking medications, which he would not have had access to if he’d been arrested on the spot.

"Every police dept and academy should be made aware of the research findings in the [ideas42] report. It humanizes issues that should be considered by all police officers when making these calls. This is important work that the criminal justice system must know about."

Learn more about how we're creating more equitable justice
to reduce mass incarceration.

¹"Detective Davis" is a pseudonym to protect this person's identity.