Guest Post: Another RCT Tackling Failure to Appear, Part II

Today’s guest post comes from two Harvard Ph.D. students in Public Policy and Economics, respectively, Helen Ho and Natalia Emanuel. Helen and Natalia are affiliates of the Lab and have been working on their own randomized control trial (“RCT”) focused on failures to appear (“FTAs”) for arraignments. This post is the second in a series describing their study.

As we wrote in our last post, we’re interested in situations in which defendants miss their court case, also known as failure to appear (FTA). We’re working with a court system on a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate interventions that encourage people to show up for their arraignment or resolve their case ahead of time (if their case allows it).

Court staff members developed two postcards that would inform individuals of their court date, their case number, and the address of the courthouse at which their hearing was scheduled. The postcards also let them know about the consequences of missing their court date and accommodations that the court offers, such as free interpreters and the ability to reschedule.

The postcards had similar information, but used different behavioral nudges and designs. The first postcard emphasized that most people resolve their cases successfully, which is a social nudge. The postcard was also signed by the presiding judge, adding an official but personal invitation to resolve their case. The second postcard emphasized that the court was willing to help defendants resolve their case efficiently.

We tested the two postcards in traffic, misdemeanor, and municipal violations courts. The postcards increased case resolution prior to the court date or showing up to court by 5 percentage points. This is the equivalent of lowering the FTA rate by the same amount.


Noticeably, in the court dealing with municipal ordinances–the one called General Sessions—the postcards did not cause a statistically significant improvement. However, if we break out the treatment effects by postcard, the first postcard improved case resolution by a bit less than 5 percentage points, a statistically significant effect. We did not have a large enough sample size to confidently detect differences in treatment effects between the postcards.

In our next phase, we are developing new interventions to further increase case resolution rates. To inform these interventions, we are conducting qualitative interviews with defendants about their experiences of receiving and resolving tickets. We hope to understand why people might miss their court dates and what the court could do to help them show up.

TOP 10 A2J RESEARCH PRIORITIES #8: Legal Service Provider Outreach and Intake

Start off your weekend with this week’s Top 10 video!

This video series describes what we consider to be the top 10 access to justice research priorities. The quick 2-3 minute videos will wake you up and get you excited about the ways that experimentation, research, and (of course) RCTs can improve access to justice.

Here’s the latest installment: LSP Outreach and Intake. Outreach and intake are major components of determining who gets legal representation, which in turn has serious implications for access to justice.

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