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

Today’s guest post comes from two Harvard Ph.D. students in Public Policy and Economics, respectively, Helen Ho and Natalia Emmanuel. 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. If you’ve been following our blog you might have read about FTA in connection to the Pre-Trial Release Study underway in Dane County, WI. Helen and Natalia’s study focuses specifically on interventions to reduce FTA. This post is a first in a two-part series describing their study.

Take it away, Helen and Natalia!

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The Problem of Failing to Appear

We’re Ph.D. students in Economics and Public Policy working with the Access to Justice Lab on an RCT to reduce FTAs for arraignments. This post is a first in a series describing our study and our experiences with setting up a RCT.

It’s surprisingly easy to miss a court date for a traffic citation. Hearings are usually scheduled weeks in advance, and one’s citation slip is the only record of the hearing date. If someone misplaces that citation or forgets what the officer who made the stop said (in what was probably a stressful moment), a court date can come and go without notice.

However, not showing up for a hearing — what is called in court-speak a “failure to appear” — can be serious. Many courts impose fines and fees for FTAs. One’s driver’s license can be canceled or suspended. A bench warrant for an arrest usually issues. Most of these consequences follow automatically from not showing up to court. Thus, what started out as a minor interaction with the criminal justice system—a traffic violation or staying too late in a public park—can escalate into a much weightier legal problem involving arrest and legal debt.

Given these consequences, it seems like a no-brainer to either resolve a case before the hearing or to stay on top of the court date. Yet, in about 20% of cases in our study site, the defendant did not show up to the hearing.

FTAs not only create problem for defendants, they also can be very problematic for the courts themselves. FTAs lead to uneven and unpredictable caseloads, which cost taxpayers additional money. One study estimated that each FTA can cost the court system between $70 and $80.

From the court’s perspective, it isn’t entirely clear why defendants aren’t showing up. Getting a ticket, can be a forgettable event for one person; for another it’s a formidable one. But the court has no way of knowing if people fail to appear to their hearings because forgetfulness, scheduling conflicts, emotional barriers, or myriad other reasons. Not knowing the source of the problem makes it hard to know what the court should do to reduce FTAs.

We became interested in this question because reducing FTAs will help individual defendants and the criminal justice system. FTAs are costly for defendants (who may face another arrest and additional sanctions), for courts (that have to expend resources tracking down absent defendants), and for taxpayers (who pay for those systemic costs). We hope that by increasing the likelihood that defendants show up for court, they can deal with small legal issues before they take on more serious consequences resulting from an FTA. We also hope that courts will experience real efficiency gains.

We are working with a court system that is eager to reduce its FTA rate and that embraces evidence-driven solutions. Our intervention is designed to reduce FTAs and, in the process, uncover the main reasons why defendants don’t show up. That intervention is a set of court date reminders, which will be varied in an RCT framework.

A randomized evaluation is a great tool for understanding the causes and reducing the consequences of FTA. It is relatively simple to randomly select which defendants will receive which type of court date reminder. We will use our randomly selected groups to pilot new interventions and test them against what previous studies have found to be the most effective formats.

Stay tuned for more study details in a future post!

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