4 Strategies to Improve People’s Appearance in Court

New national report can help local leaders get more people to show up

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4 Strategies to Improve People’s Appearance in Court

Courts process more than 15 million criminal cases and 30 million traffic cases a year. At that volume, if even just a small percentage of people miss a court appearance, the number of missed hearings will quickly add up. Missed hearings create additional work for court staff, add to the backlog of cases awaiting resolutions, and create inefficiencies for courthouse operations. They also come with serious consequences for communities: A missed hearing can result in a bench warrant, driver’s license suspension, fines, and even jail time. 

Fortunately, judges and other court leaders throughout the country are adopting new approaches to help get more people to court in the first place. In a newly released report, the National Guide to Improving Court Appearance, the behavioral science nonprofit Ideas42 examined practices and innovations that improve the rates of court appearances. Created after a comprehensive literature review and interviews with practitioners, the report offers dozens of practices that are research-backed or show promising results, each underpinned by at least one of the following four principles.

1. Make information clear, timely, and accessible

Notices, citations, and other court forms are typically written by attorneys and other court staff, so they are often dense and filled with legalese that can hard for the average person to understand. If someone can’t decipher what’s expected of them, how can they carry it out?

To address this, some courts are translating their forms and websites into plain language that makes information easy to understand and borrowing design strategies that help the most important information stand out. In New York City, a redesigned summons resulted in a 13% decrease in missed court appearances.

Courts are also changing how they share information. Some now send text-message notifications to remind individuals of an upcoming court hearing, the way automated appointment reminders might arrive from a dentist or doctor. The research evidence for this intervention is strong: Reminders have been consistently shown to reduce missed court hearings.

2. Reduce logistical challenges

Common obstacles can prevent someone from getting to court, even for individuals who know where to go and when to get there. For example, someone might not have reliable transportation or be unable to get time off work.

One tool that can eliminate both of those common barriers is allowing virtual court hearings. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more courts have authorized individuals to appear remotely in court, through Zoom or other platforms, letting them participate in the hearing without the hours and effort of getting to court.  Virtual court hearings in El Paso, Texas, led to a 68% decline in nonappearances.

3. Add flexibility

No business or industry is immune from no-shows or missed appointments. Even with effective communication and minimal logistical challenges, courts will still face some degree of people who don’t show up for unexpected reasons—children get sick, work schedules change, cars break down.

While these inevitabilities can’t be prevented, their associated consequences can be minimized if courts add flexibility to their scheduling. For example, some courts have established grace periods, a short window of time following a missed court date when someone can show up at court before an arrest warrant is issued. This gives people a second chance to fulfill their court obligation if an unexpected event got in the way. States such as Nevada and New York even have grace periods established in law.

4. Provide useful resources for those who need them

People with substance use issues or mental illness or who are experiencing homelessness face challenges that go beyond logistics. With these vulnerable populations, courts can modify their approach to ensure that the pretrial process does not further destabilize people’s lives and is instead an opportunity to connect them with available resources. 

Wraparound services, which connect people with community-based assistance and coordinate services, are one tactic courts can use to help people navigate their case.  In Contra Costa County, California, the Office of the Public Defender partnered with almost a dozen local agencies and community-based organizations through the Holistic Intervention Partnership, where case managers help individuals manage the court system and connect with services or organizations based on their unique needs.

The National Guide to Improving Court Appearance offers dozens of practices across these four principles to help courts improve their appearance rates, including summaries of the evidence behind practices, considerations for implementation, and assessment of potential costs. The report gives local leaders the information they need to make the right decisions for their courts and their communities. Whatever they choose, working to improve court appearance will have benefits both inside and outside of the courthouse.

Michelle Russell leads analysis of jails and courts data for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

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