Much of the current justice system is built on processes and techniques that make it harder than it has to be to comply with orders and even show up to court dates. The no shows are hit with sanctions and weighty consequences from impossible to pay fines to jail time.

Collateral consequences from an arrest like this can impact a current job, future opportunities, housing qualifications, and more.

When I think about courts having to issue so many “failure to appear” orders, I wonder…

Are people failing to appear because they are deliberately indifferent?


Are people failing to appear because they don’t know they’re supposed to be appearing?

My bet is on the latter, at least for many folks. In fairness, and thanks to scientists, I’m aware that research is starting to back this up.

Science Magazine chart showing efforts to reduce failure to appear rates.

In my Nov. 6 issue of Science Magazine, researchers looking at this issue discovered that simply redesigning forms and sending text reminders can dramatically reduce missed dates.

The researchers — Alissa FishbaneAurelie Ouss, and Anuj K. Shah — demonstrated that with a couple simple changes, the failures to appear were reduced by 13% and 21% depending upon the method. The result was 30,000 fewer arrest warrants over a three-year period.

“This suggests that a meaningful proportion of defendants who fail to appear are not intentionally skipping court but are effectively unaware of court,” the researchers conclude.

Yet when attitudes are explored, laypeople believe that failure to appear is an intentional choice. The researchers did find that prosecutors and judges don’t believe that dates are missed intentionally.

The Science article, “Behavioral nudges reduce failure to appear for court,” goes on to discuss how the current system disproportionately impacts poorer and minority communities.

I’m curious about which courts are working on solutions in this area, from cleaning up forms to creating text messaging alerts. I remember when courts first began using texts to remind jurors to show up for duty. It shouldn’t be a heavy lift to loop in defendants. This 2019 AP article says states are adopting and adapting at least in Arizona, California, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Washington.

This is a jaw-dropping anecdote that should make this a no-brainer practice for courts:

In Arizona, after court administrators started a pilot program last year, the text reminders for criminal court hearings helped reduce the number of failure-to-appear warrants issued in Scottsdale Municipal Court by 51.9% during its first three months.

As I was wrapping up this post, I saw this tweet from Suffolk Law’s Gabe Teninbaum:

I’ll be following responses.