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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%: