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Improving communication around and awareness of critical court information through behavioral interventions, or “nudges,” may be more effective at improving court attendance for low-level criminal offenses than threats of further punishment, according to new research by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Anuj K. Shah.

The study, released today in the journal Science, involved redesigning New York City’s court summons form. The results suggest that many failures to appear (FTAs) – and the millions of potentially unnecessary arrest warrants they generate – may not be due to an intentional contempt for court but, rather, because existing policies do not consider human error. Shah conducted the research with colleagues Alissa Fishbane, managing director at ideas42, a non-profit that uses insights from human behavior to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change; and Aurelie Ouss, assistant professor in the criminology department at University of Pennsylvania, and an affiliate of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

“Each year, millions of U.S. citizens fail to appear in court for arrests or summonses related to low-level offenses. Defendants are often then held in contempt of court and warrants are issued for their arrest which, in many cases, drastically heightens the severity of the original offense,” said Shah, associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth. “While such punishment policies are designed to deter individuals from skipping out on an appearance, they assume that the defendants are doing so intentionally. But what if those who fail to appear do so because they forget or misunderstand the information they are given regarding their appearance? In these cases, it may be more cost-effective and humane to improve how court information is communicated to help reduce FTAs.”

The researchers explored this idea in a pair of large-scale studies from New York City. The first simplified court summons forms to better communicate the time, date and location of court appearances, as well as consequences for not showing up to court. The second offered defendants who provided a phone number with a series of text messages throughout the week leading up to their court date, reminding them about key details concerning their court appearance, such as time and location.

The findings show that the interventions reduced FTAs by 13% (redesigned forms) and 21% (text messages) respectively, and led to 30,000 fewer arrest warrants over a three-year period. What’s more, in lab experiments, the study found that laypeople, not criminal justice professionals, often regard FTAs as intentional, rather than accidental. Such beliefs could perpetuate political support for punitive policies, rather than efforts to make critical court information more salient.

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