Every year, many defendants miss their court hearings in DC, often triggering serious consequences, including warrants being issued for the defendants’ arrest. Some of the reasons for missing a court hearing may be addressed with the right type of reminder. The Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia (PSA) and The Lab @ DC will be testing reminders based on behavioral insights to see if we can increase court appearance rates. The findings will inform decisions on how best to communicate with defendants.
Why is this issue important in DC?
Legal cases often require multiple court appearances and missing just one can lead to an expensive fine or a bench warrant for a person’s arrest. In DC, failure to appear in court is one of the most common reasons for arrest, representing 20% of total felony arrest charges in 2016 and 2017. 1
What are we doing?
We are collaborating with PSA to redesign the reminders PSA sends to individuals who have scheduled court appearances (excluding those who have past court appearances related with their case). In creating the reminders, we want to first understand the reasons for failure to appear in court. So, our design process draws from behavioral science principles, focus group discussions with defendants, and interviews with PSA staff and Public Defender Service (PDS) attorneys.
We plan to incorporate our findings from the focus group discussions and interviews into the redesigned notifications, which take the form of physical letters, text messages, and emails. PSA will randomly send individuals awaiting trial under PSA supervision either the existing reminders or the new reminder designs. We will then compare which reminder is better at encouraging court appearances.
What have we learned?
During interviews with PSA pretrial services staff and PDS attorneys, we learned that some of the most heavily cited reasons for failure to appear in court are the cost of travel, planning, confusion about a court date, and a lack of understanding about the serious consequences of failing to appear.
What comes next?
The findings will inform decisions on how best to communicate with defendants.