Ready, set, launch…Court Date Reminders in a Public Defense Setting

The Access to Justice Lab has started a new study to learn whether text message communication between arrestees and their public defenders can reduce failure to appear (FTA) rates, improve attorney-client relationships, and avoid unnecessary incarceration. Failure to appear at trial is often a reason that policymakers give for incarcerating people before their trial date. If there are methods that help more people appear in court without keeping them in jail and without impacting public safety, there will be strong evidence to support reduction in pretrial detention.

Working with the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services and the Wayne County, NY, Public Defender, the Access to Justice Lab is now evaluating whether or not using a text messaging reminder system will improve court appearance rates in Wayne County, New York. Existing research tells us that court date notifications provide as much as 30-50 percent increase in appearance rates. Our project seeks to expand on this work to learn more about the most effective method and timing of such notifications. We hope to add sites in the coming months to learn even more about the intervention.

In particular, we’re integrating an understudied step in the pretrial process: attendance at meetings with public defenders. Our study will assess whether the structure of a notification system can help arrestees solve a larger problem (their criminal case) by helping them take step one to solve it (attending their attorney appointments), thereby making it more likely that they will take the second key step (attending court).

Andrew Correia, Wayne County public defender, says, “The Wayne County Public Defender is excited to work with the Access to Justice Lab and the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services to explore how improved communications can help us advocate for the best possible outcomes on behalf of our clients. It is our hope this study will provide information demonstrating to public defender offices and their funding sources that these types of innovations can improve both quality of representation and systemic efficiency simultaneously.”

The study is the first that we know of to examine the impact of text message reminders sent by public defender offices specifically. We are interested to discover whether there is value in messages from defenders, who should be working with their clients to build trusting relationships and defend them in court. It’s possible, for example, that better, earlier contact between arrestees and lawyers might improve the attorney-client relationship, enable quicker case investigation, and shorten the time to dispose cases.

Now randomizing in the field, the study seeks to answer these questions:

1) Does the inclusion of notifications earlier in the process, when defendants are meeting with their public defenders, have a greater impact on attendance at appointments and appearances?

2) With a focus on new technologies, what types of notification methods are most effective at improving attendance at appointments and appearances?

3) How effective are notifications at reducing non-attendance at appointments and appearances?

To examine all three research questions, there will be several treatment groups. The interventions will include: 1) notifications for public defender appointments only; 2) notifications for court appearances only; or 3) notifications for both. To examine the effectiveness of different technologies, interventions will include either notifications via text message or robocalls (as allowable). In the control group, the status quo will remain in place, such that communications regarding meetings and court hearings will be made in the usual way (paper or verbal format, not systematically implemented). Individuals will be randomly assigned to one of the behavioral change interventions and one of the notification technologies or to the control group.

We’ll share the results here when they’re available.

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