By Gina Martinez
In an effort to nudge people to go to court, New Yorkers will now receive text-message reminders about summonses.
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s text-reminder program for people who receive summonses. The program, launched by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Court Administration and NYPD, has proved successful during test runs in encouraging individuals to appear when they have upcoming court dates.
According to the city, the text reminders have been shown to cut failure-to-appear rates by 26 percent, and when paired with a redesigned summons form, the text reminders decreased rates of failure to appear in court by 36 percent. De Blasio said these reminders have the potential to prevent thousands of warrants each year.
“Little reminders can make a big difference,” he said. “These text messages will help people avoid a missed court appearance — and a warrant that could eventually lead to spending a night in jail. We’ve found that these gentle nudges help New Yorkers remember when and where their court appearance is and reduce failure-to-appear rates, and that progress is a great step toward a fairer justice system.”
In 2016 there were 267,763 criminal summonses issued in New York City, but nearly 4 of 10 people who received them failed to appear in court, the mayor’s office said. Among the possible reasons were that people forgot by the time the date came around months later, they did not realize the importance of attending, or they did not make time to do. Whenever someone fails to appear in court, a warrant may be issued for his or her arrest, which can lead to harsher punishment and stretch the resources of the justice system.
In 2014, the city partnered with ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral design lab, to redesign the summons form so that people are more likely to return to court. The new form more prominently displayed the time, date, and location of court appearances as well as consequences for not showing up.
A study of the revised form by the University of Chicago Crime Lab determined that the changes helped decreased the failure-to-appear rate by 13 percent.
The new form also invited recipients to include their phone numbers so they can receive text-message reminders. During 16 months from March 2016 to June 2017, people who provided their phone numbers were randomly selected to receive text messages that encouraged appearing in court. Some messages emphasized that there would be consequences for failure to appear, some encouraged planning in advance for the appearance, and some underscored that failing to appear would be out of step with the norms of their peers.
According to the mayor, these text-message reminders cut failure-to-appear rates by 26 percent, in addition to the 13 percent improvement through the new summons form.
The Office of Court Administration is now sending text reminders to all summons recipients who gave a cellphone number on the summons, which is expected to prevent issuance of thousands of warrants annually.
Council Member Rory I. Lancman (D-Hillcrest), who is also the chairman of the Committee on the Justice System, said improving court attendance of summons recipients will go a long way toward curtailing unnecessary arrest warrants and expensive incarceration.
“As it stands today, New York City’s exorbitant failure-to-appear rate clogs our justice system and wastes valuable taxpayer resources,” he said. “I commend the city for focusing on the failure-to-appear problem and taking action to ensure summons recipients have all the necessary information at their fingertips.”
The mayor said this is just one of the many initiatives the city has taken to prevent minor offenses from snowballing into arrests and detention, which can ruin a person’s job or housing opportunities. The Criminal Justice Reform Act substituted civil tickets for criminal summonses for low-level offenses by more than 90 percent. Summons enforcement has also significantly decreased. According to de Blasio, the number of criminal summonses dropped 50 percent from 2013 to 2017.
The mayor’s office has also worked with four district attorneys to dismiss 644,000 outstanding warrants for minor offenses like drinking alcohol in public or entering a park after hours.
Reach Gina Martinez by email at gmart