Imagine a 34-year-old single dad, Michael, who’s living in Queens, New York with his four-year-old daughter. One evening, he gets a ticket from the New York City Police for drinking an open beer outside his neighborhood bar. He receives a summons with the date and time of his court date, which is about three months away.
Michael skims the complicated, wordy document angrily—he still can’t believe that his minor offense requires going to court—and starts to wonder how he’s going to balance child care and his constantly shifting work schedule that day. Don’t most people skip these stupid things, anyway? Michael thinks. I’ll write this down later.
Later never comes. Michael misses his court date, and the judge releases a warrant for his arrest. A few days later, Michael is speeding on his way to work and a cop pulls him over. Discovering his warrant in the system, he cuffs a bewildered Michael and brings him to court to appear before a judge and address the warrant.
What happened to Michael strains not only him but the criminal justice system, too. It’s a problem for everyone involved. And a big one at that. In 2014, almost 41 percent of recipients of low-level offense tickets didn’t come to court. That’s 130,000 missed court dates and arrest warrants.
A three-year collaboration researched the underlying behaviors associated with missing a court summons—and how to use behavioral science interventions to change those behaviors.
Now, there’s another way to approach the problem. On January 25, ideas42 and University of Chicago’s Crime Lab in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the New York City Police Department and the New York State Unified Court System Office of Courts Administration released the results of a three-year collaboration that researched the underlying behaviors associated with missing a court summons—and how to use behavioral science interventions, like text message reminders and a redesigned summons form, to change those behaviors. The findings have implications not only for how cities can reduce their failure-to-attend rates but also for criminal justice reform writ large.
“In public finance, environmental policy, and education, we’ve started to recognize that people making mistakes aren’t weighing pros and cons of all their decisions,” says Auriele Ouss, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, and previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago Crime Lab where she collaborated on this project. “In those fields, we’ve designed policies that are successful by acknowledging this.” And yet, she notes, we’ve done very little of this in crime policy.
Indeed, criminal justice policies have largely been constructed on a set of assumptions—that people are consciously aware of why they’re making decisions and that they’ve made an explicit decision to break the law. This framing has justified putative criminal justice policies focused on deterrence—like ramping up the consequences for bad behavior through longer prison sentences and dispatching more officers to the streets.
The problem: These strategies haven’t worked too well, in part because they’re not based on the way people actually think and behave.
Behavioral scientists set out to design a form where users could get basic information—like the time and place for a court date or the consequences of not appearing—with just a glance.
Take Michael, for instance. He missed his court date in part because his mental model of what kind of an offense would merit a court visit didn’t include sipping an open Bud Light outside the bar. In other words, he had trouble believing that the consequences he faced for his behavior were proportionate and fair. What’s more, since the court date was so far away, he had time to forget about the offense entirely.
Michael also struggled with present bias: The immediate costs of attending court (uncertainty around balancing his work and child care schedule) trumped the nebulous consequences of failing to show up (which he couldn’t see with a cursory read of the form). And he was ill-informed about social norms: Although a majority of the individuals interviewed in the report thought most people didn’t attend their court dates, the opposite is true. This misperception can have a major impact on whether they decide to attend.
Although Michael isn’t a real person, he exemplifies many of the individuals the researchers spoke to before they designed their interventions. They worked with New York City community groups to talk to vulnerable populations and reached out to summons recipients who had previously missed their court dates. Often, the interviewees were more likely to have inflexible jobs or to even have been homeless.
“How do we use these insights to change the criminal behavior itself—not just the failure to show up for a summons?”
One of the first problems researchers tackled: the summons form itself.
“It was as if the thing was written in Gothic German,” acknowledges Liz Glazer, the director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Behavioral scientists set out to design a form where users could get basic information—like the time and place for a court date or the consequences of not appearing—with just a glance. The scientists found that the redesigned form decreased the failure-to-attend rate by 13 percent.
Next, they tackled other behavioral challenges (like present bias, social norms, and mental models) through text messages to help people like Michael both plan for and remember their court date, and to make the costs of missing it more salient. The reminders said things like, “You have court on Mon Jun 03 at 346 Broadway Manhattan. What time should you leave to get there by 9:30AM? Any other arrangements to make? Write out your plan.” The pre-court texts, which came in several varieties and were sent seven days, three days, and one day before court for various groups, reduced the FTA rate by 21 percent.
For Alissa Fishbane, a managing director at ideas42, the best part of the results is that they’re scalable, inexpensive, and therefore a potentially powerful tool for other cities. The researchers included the exact wording of the texts that they sent in their report plus guidance on how to send them, “because we want other jurisdictions to be able to easily adopt them,” she explained.
And, perhaps, to start thinking differently about how to change criminal behavior. Glazer, for instance, is now considering where else behavioral insights can be applied in the criminal justice process. “How do we use these insights to change the criminal behavior itself—not just the failure to show up for a summons?” she asked, citing the number of people who continue to, for instance, drink in public, despite the fact that they are ticketed and summoned to court if caught. “Perhaps we should think about a different kind of approach, because it’s weird that summons aren’t changing that behavior.”
Disclosure: ideas42 is a partner of the Behavioral Scientist.