Using human-centered design principles and behavioral nudges, researchers revised court summons for low-level offenders and instituted a text messaging reminder system, increasing court appearance rates.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at email@example.com for more information.
In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight three researchers exploring how the design of court summons forms can drastically reduce failure to appear in court. The project, applied to New York City, uses behavioral nudges to improve communication between local government and citizens. MetroLab's Ben Levine spoke with Anuj Shah from the University of Chicago, Alissa Fishbane from ideas42 and Aurelie Ouss from the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania are both MetroLab members.
Ben Levine: Tell us about the origin of this project, and who has been involved in it.
Alissa Fishbane: We [Alissa Fishbane, Aurelie Ouss and Anuj Shah] conducted this project in collaboration with New York’s Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), the Office of Court Administration and New York Police Department.
In New York City, summons are given to people charged with the lowest level criminal offenses, such as open containers of alcohol or trespassing in a public park after dark. Those who receive a summons are required to show up to court, yet previously over 40 percent failed to appear in court and therefore received a bench warrant for their arrest.
In late 2014, the city began a process to update their summons form, and MOCJ reached out to ideas42 to explore whether changing the form could help reduce failures to appear in court (and the resulting arrest warrants). Shortly after redesigning the form, we partnered with MOCJ on another opportunity to further reduce failures to appear: sending text message reminders to defendants to help them remember their court date, which is typically 12 weeks after summons are given.
Levine: Can you talk about the hypothesis you describe in your paper? How do you define a “behavioral nudge”?
Anuj Shah: In the most general sense, a nudge is a small, low-cost change that makes it easier for people to decide, or follow through on a decision, in a way that might leave them better off. Our hypothesis here was fairly straightforward. We reasoned that many people might be missing court unintentionally. Their court information might not have been salient enough, or they might have forgotten about their court date. In short, people might miss court for the same reasons that they miss all kinds of appointments.
But this hypothesis stands in stark contrast to how the criminal justice system often treats failures to appear. They are implicitly treated as intentional. And so defendants are held in contempt of court, and there’s a rather severe punishment for missing court.
Levine: How did your court summons design differ from the existing one? How did you make those design decisions?
Fishbane: When we looked at the original form using a behavioral science lens, we noticed that the information about a court appearance was not clear or easy to find. Essentially, the form was not created with the recipient in mind, which is a very common thing we see with government communications. Forms are created to be functional for the administrators, and historically, little thought has been given to how much the design of forms and presentation of information actually affects behavior for recipients.
The design of forms matters greatly if we think that people intend to go to court but don’t always make it. This is counter to punitive policies, like warrants, which presume that defendants often miss court on purpose. From our conversations with prior summons recipients, we learned more about their intentions and varying challenges in going to court. Some common themes included not knowing they had to go to court, not being aware of the penalties or simply forgetting. We saw that in many cases it was simple human error, not a premeditated decision to miss court.
Based on this, we changed the summons form in a few key ways: We moved the most important information about court dates to the top, instead of where it previously was at the very bottom. We made it clear what would happen if the court date were missed. We also made a few other changes, like switching the title to clarify that a court appearance was required.
To address the large gap in time (often up to 12 weeks) between when a summons is given and the court date, we sent text message reminders to those who provided a phone number on the form. Starting one week before the court date, we sent three messages so that people had enough time to make any needed arrangements to go to court.
Summary of NYC Summons Redesign paper
Levine: What results did you find in this study? Were any of them particularly surprising?
Aurelie Ouss: The interventions we tested were remarkably effective at reducing failures to appear. We estimate that the form redesign reduced failures to appear by 13 percent and the text messages reduced them by 21 percent, on average. To put it more concretely, this likely translated into 30,000 fewer arrest warrants being issued over three years. And 20,000 people likely had their cases fully dismissed instead of having arrest warrants issued.
Moreover, these reductions in open warrants were primarily concentrated in neighborhoods with higher proportions of low-income and minority residents. This mostly reflects, rather than repairs, existing disparities in how summonses are issued. Because more summonses are issued in these neighborhoods, that’s where you see a greater reduction in open warrants.
Shah: Apart from these striking findings, one surprising result came out of some surveys we conducted on people’s attitudes toward these nudges. We found that lay people believe that failures to appear are more intentional than other failures (e.g., missing a doctor’s appointment). And this belief reduces popular support for these nudges. So, getting buy-in for these nudges might depend not only on showing that they are effective, but also on changing people’s minds about why defendants miss court.
Levine: Do you believe there are other areas where cities can invest in design to improve outcomes? Where else could these “behavioral nudges” be employed?
Fishbane: Behavioral science is a very useful tool in any situation where we find people are not translating their own intentions into actions, or in the best interest of themselves or their communities. For example, with our own ideas42-led behavioral design teams embedded in mayor’s offices, cities like Chicago and New York have seen real progress across a wide range of areas — increasing diversity in hiring for public jobs, renewal rates for benefits, use of health services, payment of parking tickets and persistence at local community colleges. What’s exciting is that implementing these changes are often far more cost-effective than other approaches as well.
Ouss: And within the criminal justice space, we think the same principles behind why defendants miss court might also apply to a host of other issues, like violations of parole or probation, or even failures to appear for more serious offenses.
Fishbane: And we’ve also been interested in how they might apply to increasing the use of court diversion programs or helping people deal with traffic fines and suspended licenses.
Levine: What’s the next step for your team? Does this have potential to be implemented in cities outside New York?
Fishbane: Failure to appear in court is an issue across many cities. In the U.S., on average 21 to 24 percent of people charged with felonies fail to appear, and this rate is likely higher in general for lower-level offenses. Our hope is that this work can be adopted broadly, and our intervention designs are completely open source and can be found online here. Since publishing our work, we have heard from jurisdictions all over the country, given designs' strong impact and very low-cost. In response, we are aiming to launch an initiative dedicated to helping governments adapt these interventions to their local context (if you’re interested in working with us, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org).
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