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Data Stories

Deep dives into the First Judicial District Attorney's office.

Strategies to Improve Court Appearance

By Sue Ferrere & Jennifer Kilpatrick · 2023-8-31

Individuals charged in a criminal case are required to appear in Court as determined by the Court’s schedule. If a defendant misses a Court date, that absence is recorded as a “Failure to Appear” (FTA) and a bench warrant is issued, which can trigger arrest and jailing, often for minor offenses. The repercussions cascade: Cases with FTA’s take longer to resolve, victims experience a delay in justice, District Attorney and Court caseloads become backlogged, and taxpayers bear the costs of missed hearings [1] and increased bookings into the jail. While some defendants may be avoiding prosecution, studies show that most missed court appearances are unintentional. Failures to appear at doctors’ appointments occur at similar rates to court dates and the primary reasons are the same: forgetfulness, transportation issues, and schedule conflicts.[2] However, there is now abundant science on how technology and supportive strategies based on behavioral principles can improve court appearance. The most effective intervention is the same one your dentist and stylist use: reminder texts.

The Colorado Judicial Branch implemented a court date reminder program, in stages, over the past several years. [3] Initially it was opt-in but evolved to universal, where all criminal cases now receive a reminder unless the person opts out. We recently took a look at how the text reminder program impacted County Court arraignments (first court appearance, typically after receiving a summons).

Overall, for 12,872 arraignments between January 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023, there was a 61% court appearance rate and a 39% failure to appear (FTA) rate. That is nearly 5,000 missed hearings over 18 months, for traffic and misdemeanor cases alone.

However, there was a noticeable difference between the first half of 2022 and the first half of 2023, when court date reminders went full scale. Court appearance rates increased by 16% between 2022 and 2023 – the equivalent of 1,000 more people showing up for their court date in the first half of 2023 than in the first half of 2022. The improvement is in line with that seen by other text reminder programs, including the program piloted locally in Jefferson County more than a decade ago.[4]

Court appearance rates improved for both misdemeanor (M) and traffic (T) cases, but reminder texts appear to have a greater impact on T cases. M cases’ court appearance rates increased by 13% (35% to 48%) whereas T cases increased 17% (62% to 79%).

Additional Strategies to Improve Court Appearance

Court date reminder texts improved appearance rates, but some types of cases showed greater improvement than others. For example, the appearance rate for DUI cases improved by approximately 20 percentage points to 85%.[5] On the other hand, appearance rates for drug and property cases remain below 50% even after implementation of reminder texts.

The 1st Judicial District Attorney, in collaboration with other justice system stakeholders and the Jefferson County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC), is exploring other strategies and targeted interventions to further improve court appearance rates. These include:

  • Uniform and Modernized Summons Design

A well-designed law enforcement summons is crucial to court appearance. The Court opens a criminal case based on it and uses the defendant’s contact information for a text reminder, which can only be effective if that information is accurate and reliable. For the defendant, the summons should contain pertinent, accessible information about their court date, time, and location. We are reviewing local law enforcement summonses to see if updates are warranted.

  • Supportive Interventions

We are also exploring ways to support court appearance beyond text reminders, since a disproportionate number of individuals with criminal cases experience homelessness, behavioral health needs, and financial instability. A good example of a local innovation is Lakewood’s Community Outreach Court, which brings Court to the community once a month, and also provides access to resources.

[1] Estimated at $1,000 per missed hearing, see Impact of Failure to Appear

[2] Getting Patients in the Door: Medical Appointment Reminder Preferences

[3] Mandated by Colorado Senate Bill 19-036 and expanded in Senate Bill 22-018

[4] Schnacke, Timothy R.; Jones, Michael R.; and Wilderman, Dorian M., "Increasing Court-Appearance Rates and Other Benefits of Live-Caller Telephone Court-Date Reminders: The Jefferson County, Colorado, FTA Pilot Project and Resulting Court Date Notification Program" (2012). Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association. 393.

[5] Even text reminders for doctors’ appointments top out at ~90%:

Supportive Interventions for Drug Possession

By Kenneth Hayes and Jennifer Kilpatrick · 2023-5-30

From 2017-2019, our office filed approximately 1,200 felony drug cases per year, primarily for possession.  In 2019, Colorado legislators passed House Bill 19-1263, which reclassified most drug possession to a misdemeanor. The statute took effect on March 1, 2020. The legislation decreased the felony filings, added a significant number of cases into county court, and dramatically shifted how drug possession cases are handled within the criminal justice system.

Individuals charged with possession of controlled substance often lack stable housing, consistent employment, and access to treatment. Nearly 80% of individuals fail to appear (“FTA”) for their first court appearance and recent local data also indicate that approximately 50% of individuals charged with drug possession spend some time in jail, either in pretrial detention or as a sentence.

Drug charges also impact our community disproportionately - Black and Latino individuals are overrepresented in cases involving drug charges. Our Disparities Analysis reveals that Hispanic and Black individuals are more likely to plead guilty to a drug offense than white individuals. In addition, Latino individuals are more likely to be incarcerated for a case involving drug charges than white or Black individuals.

To address these cases our office prioritizes community-based treatment and support for individuals charged with drug possession. Those charged only with drug possession are eligible to have their criminal charges dismissed and access treatment through our Pathways Substance Intervention Program (SIP). The Pathways program was intentionally designed with the assistance of the Center for Justice Innovation to promote equitable outcomes, decrease failure to appear rates, and connect individuals with opportunities for meaningful treatment quickly through Ascent Health.

SIP became fully operational in the Fall of 2022, resulting in more than a quarter of 2022’s possession cases being diverted to supportive services.

Because of the great work of our line deputies in identifying Pathways eligible clients and the hard work of our Pathways client specialists, our Pathways clients look like the communities most impacted by the traditional, punitive criminal justice response to substance use disorder. In Pathways, individuals receive support rather than punishment.

FYI: Census Population Estimates 2022 for JeffCo: White 91%, Black/AA 1.6%, AI/AN 1.2%, Asian 3.2%, Native Hawaiian/PacIsl 0.1%, 2+ races 2.7%, Hispanic/Latino 15.9%, White alone/not Hisp 77.2%

Serving Victims of Crime

By Sue Ferrere and Allison Boyd · 2023-2-3

Our office prioritizes vulnerable populations, including children, at-risk adults, and victims of domestic violence. Victim Witness Specialists work closely with victims within the Special Victims Unit, which prosecutes felony cases involving child or elder victims. In 2021 the Victim Witness Unit served a total of 2,741 individuals who were victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, and child sexual or physical abuse. Victims of domestic violence make up 91% of the victims served.

“Thank you to the specialist for her kindness and communication.  Thank you to the DA and all for your work on getting justice and a guilty plea.  This means so much to us and is huge in the recovery process and healing for my boys.”

VRA Crime Trends

In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state Constitution to include the Victim Rights Amendment. The enabling legislation became the Victim Rights Act (VRA), which outlines the rights of victims, the responsibilities of criminal justice agencies, and the crimes that are covered by the VRA (“VRA crimes”).  The Colorado Constitution states that any person who is a victim of a criminal act shall have the right to be heard when relevant, informed, and present at all critical stages of the criminal justice process.

Felonies, including violent felonies, have remained steady since 2018 (Charging and Filing), but the number of felony VRA cases and victims that we serve increased from 2017 to 2018 and remains relatively high. The increase is in part due to legislative additions to VRA crimes, and a new crime being added to make strangulation a felony 2nd degree assault.  Strangulation is common in domestic violence crimes