- The status quo approach to missed court appearances—issuing punishments like warrants and fines for nonappearance—fails to respond to the reality that most people try to appear, yet sometimes still miss court.
- To help courts respond to the real reasons people miss court, we identified the most promising ways courts can improve appearance rates, focusing on lowering the barriers people face to showing up to court.
- We collected these practices in the National Guide to Improving Court Appearances, an actionable resource for courts and their partners. An executive summary of the guide is also available.
Each year in the United States, millions of people must appear in court in person. As with any appointment, many unintentionally miss. While most people take their court obligations seriously, they can be derailed by behavioral barriers like confusion and fear; significant hardships like housing instability or behavioral health issues; or mundane challenges like unreliable transportation or work and childcare conflicts. Consequently, the status quo approach of issuing punishments like warrants, fines, and suspended driver’s licenses for nonappearance fails to respond to these real reasons that people miss court, instead saddling them with heavy consequences and escalating the costs to courts.
The real reasons for nonappearance call for new solutions. Around the country, courts are innovating new approaches to lower barriers to court appearance, with the goal of improving efficiency and equity in their systems. Still, it’s difficult for courts to find good information about emerging and effective practices.
To help courts learn about new approaches and identify the most promising ways to help people appear, we created the National Guide to Court Appearance with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts. We analyzed over 180 examples of practices and spoke with experts across the country, learning about ways that courts in 37 states— representing every region of the continental U.S.— are working to improve appearance rates. In addition to reviewing the results of evaluation, we drew on insights from behavioral science, including our own research into court appearance challenges, to consider ways that practices might help court users navigate tangible barriers.
We identified four categories of approaches that courts are using to lower barriers to appearance:
- Make information clear, timely, and accessible to avoid confusion and reduce fear
- Reduce logistical challenges, making it easier for court users to appear and streamlining court operations
- Add flexibility so that court appearances fit within court users’ lives
- Provide useful resources for those who need them, acknowledging the gaps in basic resources as well as complex challenges that can prevent people from making it to court
Within each category, we identified proven and promising practices available to jurisdictions of different sizes, in different geographies, and serving diverse populations. The National Guide presents these practices in an easy-to-use resource, providing courts and their partners with useful information about how to choose and implement each practice. Whether courts are just beginning or are already building on existing efforts, the National Guide provides a menu of options for courts to pilot, implement, and evaluate. An executive summary of the guide is also available.
This report uplifts the change that courts are already creating, to the benefit of both the system and people who use it. Moving forward, we urge courts to start with the premise that court users want to meet their legal obligation to attend court. And, with additional help to address known barriers, many more people will be able to consistently show up. We hope this report inspires courts to take bold steps to improve appearance rates, implementing solutions that align systems with the realities of people’s lives.
This report is part of (Un)warranted, our initiative to improve court appearance across the country. Through (Un)warranted, we bring our proven expertise in reforming court date communications to effectively prevent nonappearance and its harmful consequences. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or support in redesigning and evaluating court date forms and reminders.