Crime Lab finds behavioral nudges improve court attendance in NYC

Text prompts, redesigned summons form lead to dramatic drop in failures-to-appear

In New York City, on average two out of five people who received criminal summonses were failing to appear in court, resulting in arrest warrants that carry more severe punishments and increased strain on government resources.

To change the costly trend, the city partnered with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the non-profit ideas42 to see whether small nudges could help improve court attendance. First, they worked to simplify the summons ticket that people received. The time, date and location of court appearances were made clear and prominent, and the form specified that not showing up to court would result in a warrant.

A study of the effectiveness of the re-designed form, published Jan. 24 by the Crime Lab, revealed that these small changes to the form decreased failure-to-appear rates by approximately 13 percent. New York City law enforcement has begun using the new form for all criminal summonses issued citywide.

In addition, people who provided a phone number (about 11 percent of all summons recipients) were randomly selected to receive different text messages encouraging appearance. Some messages emphasized that there would be consequences for failing-to-appear, some encouraged planning in advance for the appearance, and some underscored that failing to appear would be out of step with the norms of their peers.

The most effective text messages, which combined information on the consequences of not showing up to court and plan-making elements, further reduced failure-to-appear in court rates by 26 percent. When the form and texting program were viewed together, the total decline in the rates of failure-to-appear in court was 36 percent. The New York State Unified Court System Office of Court Administration is now sending the most effective text message reminders to all summons recipients who provide a cell phone number on the summons.

Text messages with information on consequences of not showing up and plan-making elements helped reduce rates of failure-to-appear in court. (Courtesy of Crime Lab)

"When people fail to show up for court it might not be because they intended to, but rather because they failed to notice or remember the information about their court date,” said study co-author Anuj Shah, an associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth. “This means that we do not necessarily have to resort to stricter punishments to reduce failure-to-appear. We simply need to make it easier for defendants to remember their court dates. These findings offer a glimpse of how behavioral insights might help find novel solutions to problems in the domain of criminal justice.”

“Little reminders can make a big difference, and these text messages will help people avoid a missed court appearance—and a warrant that could eventually lead to spending a night in jail. We’ve found that these gentle nudges help New Yorkers remember when and where their court appearance is and reduce failure-to-appear rates, and that progress is a great step toward a fairer justice system,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

This work represents an important step toward using behavioral science to improve the functioning and fairness of the criminal justice system, and to improve human lives. The Crime Lab is working with partners to continue to develop and evaluate other potentially scalable and cost-effective policy enhancements and interventions that leverage insights from behavioral science.