Every year, hundreds of thousands of low-level tickets, known as summonses, are issued in New York City. Police officers use them for an array of non-arrestable offenses like riding a bike on the sidewalk, littering, or consuming alcohol in public, many of these tickets can only be resolved by showing up to court on an assigned date—often long after receiving it (2-3 months later). Nearly 40% of people who receive a summons don’t show up to their court date, resulting in the issuance of a warrant for their arrest. That’s a serious problem for the city. If unresolved, these warrants can lead to unnecessary jail time, regardless of the type or severity of the offense.

Given the severe consequences of failing to comply with these summonses, why are so many people risking their freedom over such small infractions? Are they unaware of the consequences of missing court? Are they forgetting their court date? These questions have plagued policy makers in New York, and across the country in cities with similar ticket policies.

To find answers, ideas42 joined with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, NY Office of Court Administration, and the New York Police Department to help New Yorkers avoid arrest warrants by nudging them to attend their court dates for these low-level violations. We interviewed New Yorkers who did not appear on their court date as part of our research into the trends and context surrounding summonses. In doing so, we discovered that the court appearance rate is affected by some surprising factors that go beyond merely remembering a court date or knowing what the consequences of not appearing will be.

One of the insights we discovered was related to New Yorkers’ mental models, or personal understandings and beliefs, based on impressions or anecdotal information, of what the court experience would be like and what it represented. In this case, attending court was strongly associated with lost work time and wages, unrealistically steep fines, and uncomfortable experiences. These perceptions were strong enough that some people who were fully aware of arrest warrants for not appearing in court still chose to miss their court date. In doing so, they were avoiding a negative experience now while risking a far worse one—arrest— down the line. Furthermore, many people who received summonses for small offenses—like spitting or littering—felt that having to go to court was a penalty that far outweighed their mental model of the violation’s seriousness. In other words, the punishment didn’t fit the crime, so they chose not to appear.

Some of these negative perceptions were further compounded because many New Yorkers affected by summonses are lower-income and experiencing some form of time and/or resource scarcity, making juggling workday court appointments and far off dates even more difficult. For those experiencing scarcity, it can be challenging to change work schedules or make other necessary arrangements to appear in court. Many don’t have steady work shifts, making the 2-3 month delay between summons issue and court dates an additional hassle. During this lag time, some people we interviewed reported experiencing unpredictable changes in job or housing, making it even more difficult to plan ahead for a court date.

With these and other insights from behavioral science in mind, we redesigned the physical layout of the pink summons ticket. The new form prominently features the appearance date and court location at the top of the ticket, where people are more likely to see it (the old version had this information at the very bottom where it was easily overlooked). The new form also clearly states in bold typeface that missing the assigned court date will lead to a warrant (important information that was completely absent from the previous form). Behavioral science tells us that simple tweaks like these can have an outsized impact on how people act.

Building off of this completed redesign, the Office of Court Administration is now piloting a text message reminder system designed by ideas42 and our partners at the University of Chicago Crime Lab to test the effectiveness of different versions of reminder messages in helping people show up at court.

By understanding the beliefs people hold that can affect their decisions, and the context of their lives, we can design program and policy improvements and help solve problems that before seemed nearly insurmountable. Stay tuned in the coming months for a look at the impact of our redesigned summons tickets and text message pilot.