ideas42 and University of Chicago Crime Lab challenge assumptions about missed court dates

New paper in Science Magazine shares insights from behavioral science interventions that reduced failure to appear rate by 13% in New York City

New York, NY (October 8th, 2020)– Behavioral design nonprofit ideas42 and the University of Chicago Crime Lab today announced the publication of their new joint paper, Using Behavioral Nudges to Reduce Failure to Appear in Court in Science Magazine. Focusing on reducing failures to appear in court, which can lead to escalating levels of impact and harm from the criminal justice system such as arrest and fines, the paper’s results demonstrate that redesigning New York City’s summons form to make it simpler and clearer reduced failure to appear rates by 13%, and sending text message reminders reduced failure to appear rates by 21%. The results also challenge the presumption in punitive policy that defendants miss court on purpose, paving the way for a reduction in low-level offenses without stricter punishment.

Each year, millions of people are required to appear in court. And, for a variety of reasons, many of these defendants miss their court dates. In New York City, low-level crimes such as carrying open containers of alcohol or park trespassing can result in a summons violation, for which people are required to show up to court. In 2015, the year before the work started, over 40% of summons recipients failed to appear in court, thereby receiving an arrest warrant.

In late 2014, the city of New York began a process to update the summons form, issued at the time of offense. They collaborated with ideas42 to redesign the summons form so that people would be more likely to show up to court. The redesigned form highlighted the time, date, and location of court appearances, as well as consequences for not showing up to court. As a second intervention, defendants who provided a phone number could receive a series of text messages throughout the week leading up to their court date, reminding them about key details about their court appearance, such as time and location.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab then led the study and analysis of the redesigned form and text messages, revealing that these interventions reduced failures to appear on average by 13.2% and 21%, respectively. Additional research through lab experiments showed that the new forms helped people identify court information more quickly and recall it more accurately. Together, the findings suggest that a meaningful proportion of defendants who fail to appear are not intentionally skipping court, but are effectively unaware of court.

The paper also examined laypeople’s and experts’ beliefs about whether failures to appear were intentional, as well as how these beliefs affected their support for nudges to reduce failures to appear. While criminal justice professionals see failures to appear as relatively unintentional, laypeople believe they are more intentional. These lay beliefs may reduce support for policies that make court information salient and increase support for punishment.

“Like many government communications, the summons form was not created with the user in mind. We redesigned the form to make it easier to understand that the ticket is a summons to a court date, and our results help dispel the long-held idea that people aren’t showing up on purpose,” Alissa Fishbane, Managing Director at ideas42 and a co-author of the paper, said. “By applying a behavioral science lens, we were able to help people avoid unintentionally missing court and do so in a way that saves justice system resources, which has implications not only for their own lives, but for criminal justice policy in jurisdictions across the country.”

“It’s perhaps not surprising that these interventions work, although the magnitude of the effects here is still pretty startling,” Anuj Shah, a Crime Lab Affiliate at the University of Chicago, Scientific Advisor at ideas42, and a co-author of the paper, said. “Because criminal justice policy implicitly assumes, to some degree, that defendants intentionally miss court, widespread adoption of effective interventions like these will depend on a shift in those assumptions.”

“This is one of the first rigorous demonstrations of how behavioral science can inform criminal justice reform,” Aurélie Ouss, a Crime Lab Affiliate at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the paper, said. “The results significantly reduced failures to appear for low-level offenses in NYC, and in the future could inform policy and practice across court systems and locations throughout the country, including court appearances for more serious crimes or other areas such as probation and parole.”

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This paper will be published online by the journal Science on Thursday, October 8th and available at the following address: https://science.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.abb6591

About ideas42

ideas42 is a non-profit that uses insights from human behavior–why people do what they do–to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change. For more than a decade, we’ve been at the forefront of applying behavioral science in the real world. Our efforts have so far extended to 45 countries as we’ve partnered with governments, foundations, NGOs, private enterprises, and a wide array of public institutions-in short, anyone who wants to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. For more, visit ideas42.org

About the University of Chicago Crime Lab

The University of Chicago Crime Lab, housed at the Harris School of Public Policy, partners with policymakers and practitioners to help cities design and test the most promising ways to reduce crime and improve human lives at scale. It focuses on the most important criminal justice challenges of our time, including efforts to help Chicago and other cities prevent crime and violence from happening in the first place, improve schooling and income opportunities for those living in communities most impacted by violence, and reduce the harms of the criminal justice system. Crime Lab projects have helped redirect millions of dollars of public-sector resources to evidence-based strategies and have been featured in national news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, PBS News Hour and National Public Radio. To learn more about the Crime Lab, visit https://urbanlabs.uchicago.edu/labs/crime.

Media Contact:

Mitra Salasel, ideas42 mitra@ideas42.org

John Williams, University of Chicago Crime Lab jwilliams100@uchicago.edu

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