Court Date Reminder Postcards

By Rosenbaum, David I.; Hutsell, Nicole et al. | Judicature, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Court Date Reminder Postcards


Rosenbaum, David I., Hutsell, Nicole, Tomkins, Alan J., Bornstein, Brian H., Herian, Mitchel H., Neeley, Elizabeth M., Judicature


A benefit-cost analysis of using reminder cards to reduce Failure to Appear rates

Effective court reminder programs can reduce FTAs, which are costly to both court systems and defendants.

Introduction

The rate at which criminal defendants fail to appear (FTA) in court is hard to pinpoint,1 but estimates for the percentages of misdemeanants who do not appear for their court hearing range as high as one in three, depending on the jurisdiction and offense type.2 Failure to appear [FTA) increases workloads and expenditures for the courts and law enforcement and can also lead to increased penalties for defendants, including pre-trial incarceration and increased fines for what sometimes starts out as a minor offense. FTAs are costly to both court systems and defendants, so FTA reduction is in the best interest of both entities. Failures to appear for courtdates are mostlikely to occur at pretrial arraignments, though they can occur at later stages as well.3 The higher rates of FTA appear to be associated with misdemeanor offenses, likely because more serious offenses prompt either retained or appointed counsel; attorneys, thus, appear in court or make sure their clients appear. Felony defendants may also be held in custody prior to their arraignment.

Aportion of defendants willfully fail to appear. However, as Mahoney and his colleagues indicate, the reasons for most defendants' FTA seem to be more complex.4 Many defendants lead disorganized lives, forget, lose the citation and do not know whom to contact to find out when to appear, fear the justice system and/or its consequences, do not understand the seriousness of missing court, have transportation difficulties, language barriers, are scheduled to work, have childcare responsibilities, or other reasons that lead to an FTA.

Some pretrial services offices across the country have implemented court reminder programs,5 similar to doctor's appointment reminders,6 Telephone reminder programs are especially popular, even spawning a nationwide calling business7 in the wake of calling initiatives demonstrating success in such diverse areas as Coconino County, AZ,8 Jefferson County, CO,9 King County, WA,10 and Multnomah County, OR.11

Unfortunately, the costs of a caJl reminder system - either automated or using employees to make the calls - can be prohibitive.12 Might it be as effective to use reminder postcards as it is to use the telephone?

The present study evaluated a pilot, postcard reminder project conducted in 14 counties across Nebraska from March 2009 to May 2010.13 The project studied whether FTA rates in Nebraska would be reduced for misdemeanants if they were sent a postcard reminder of their hearing date.

Three different postcard reminders were sent to misdemeanant defendants for their first court appearances. The reason for the different postcard versions was to determine whether the content of the message would make a difference in appearance rates.14 The results of the project confirmed that court date notification via postcard significantly reduces failure to appear rates among misdemeanants.

The objective of the current analysis is to conduct a benefit-cost analysis. We quantify the benefits of a reduction in first appearance misdemeanant FTAs on a unit and aggregate basis. The estimated benefits generated for each of the 14 counties participating in the study are then compared to the estimated costs of a postcard reminder program. The less easily quantified social costs of FTA are also explored in this study.15 Significantly, penalties for failure to appear disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities because minorities in general have higher failure to appear rates.16 Reducing FTA rates in racial and ethnic minority groups can play a small yet important role in reducing the overrepresentation of minorities in the corrections system. The effects of FTA reduction on court hearings, court fees, and fine revenues are also discussed. …

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