In 2015, police in New York City handed out more than 250,000 criminal summons—the infamous “pink tickets” for low-level offenses such as loitering and drinking in public. But many recipients didn’t show up for the court dates that typically accompany fines, leading the courts to issue more than 100,000 arrest warrants for those who skipped. Such dreary numbers had already convinced city officials to overhaul the summons form for the first time in decades. When they called Alissa Fishbane, a behavioral design expert at the nonprofit organization ideas42, she was ready.
Fishbane and others in her field focus on how design can more effectively induce or “nudge” people to respond in a desired way. In just 1 week, Fishbane and colleagues had drafted a new summons that prominently displayed where people needed to be and when—and warned more clearly what would happen if they didn’t. Now, a new study suggests the small tweaks had a big effect: After police started to hand out the revised tickets, missed court dates plummeted by 13%, Fishbane and colleagues report today in Science. What’s more, a second experiment found that sending out text message reminders caused court skipping to fall by a further 8%.
“This is an incredibly important study,” says Preeti Chauhan, a clinical psychologist at the Data Collaborative for Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Jurisdictions may think it’s too costly or not worth the effort to redesign a form, but this … provides hard data for [them] to [consider] implementing these policies.”
Failure to appear in court is a huge problem that costs cities and states across the United States tens of millions of dollars every year. National numbers for missed court dates are hard to come by, but local numbers range from 17% to 22% for serious crimes like felonies, and they tend to rise as the severity of the crime falls. In New York City, the failure to appear rate for criminal summons in 2015 was about 40%.
Suspecting the “broken” summons form might have something to do with those high rates, Alex Crohn, general counsel with the New York City mayor’s office of criminal justice, reached out to Fishbane in early 2014. “When we saw the form, we were able to understand what people were facing,” Fishbane says. The old form (below, left) had no point of contact for questions, and it buried a warning about arrest warrants on the second page. It also bore the rather opaque title, “Complaint/Information.” In contrast, the new form (below, right) has the heading, “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket.” It also gives offenders step-by-step instructions for what they need to do—and how they can plead (sometimes to avoid a court date)—after being issued a ticket.
To find out whether the new forms got more people to court, researchers gave them to every police officer on the New York City force starting in March 2016. By August 2016—when the failure to appear rate hovered at about 47%—everyone had made the switch. As the data started to come in, researchers were “shocked,” Fishbane says. Immediately after the switchover, the failure to appear rate dropped from 47% to 40.8%—a relative reduction of 13%.
But a second experiment was even more effective. Offenders who got the new forms could provide their phone numbers to receive text message reminders about their court dates. One-quarter of respondents who requested the messages received no reminder and served as a control group. The rest received one of three messages: one with tips for planning their trip, one with a warning about the consequences of missing court, and one with a combination message. The new forms, plus the messages, reduced failures to appear by 21%. The combination message was the most effective, sending failure to appear rates from 37.9% in the control group to just 28%.
“I was thrilled,” Crohn says. “It’s a huge effect.” When researchers analyzed their full data set, they estimated that from August 2016 to September 2019 the simple, cheap interventions led to 30,000 fewer arrest warrants and $140,000 in savings for the city.
To probe why the interventions might have worked, researchers subsequently tested the recall of 725 New York City residents, recruited through the online portal Amazon Mechanical Turk, who were shown both forms and then surveyed after completing another task. They were far more likely to recall their court date and location on the new form, compared with the old one. They were also more likely to remember the penalty for failing to show up.
That suggests the problem isn’t that people are intentionally skipping their court dates so much as forgetting or overlooking the information, says co-author Anuj Shah, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. “Everyday human error can lead people to act in somewhat perplexing ways,” he says. That’s especially true, he adds, for people from poor or minority communities—who receive the majority of summons. “Poverty taxes mental bandwidth,” Shah says, as immediate needs such as feeding your family or getting to work often crowd out the needs of tomorrow. In fact, the new work shows text messages were almost twice as effective for people living in the poorest zip codes.
Now that New York City has officially adopted the revised forms—and made text message reminders available for anyone wishing to receive them—other cities, counties, and states are reaching out to Fishbane for advice. She hopes they will not only pick up on the interventions, but that they will start to think of others that might be even more effective.