Editor’s note: This is part of a series exploring initiatives around Boston, the country, and the world that have succeeded or hold great promise, from government to business to culture. For more stories, click here.
For all the problems that plague our court systems, missed court dates may be one of the most vexing.
Nationally, about two in 10 people facing a felony charge fail to show up for their court date annually. For lower-level offenses, the rates tend to be even higher.
As a result, individuals who fail to appear, even for minor offenses, can face more serious charges. That tardiness also wreaks havoc on the docket, and can eventually lead to backlogs.
But a growing number of court systems around the country have piloted a unique program to cope with the problem using a basic tool: the cellphone. The premise is simple. Send a text message to anyone due in court — including defendants, jurors, and probationers — reminding them about their upcoming appearance.
The texting concept, which experts say is both low-cost and fairly easy to implement, has proven effective at getting more people to show up to court in places like New York, New Jersey, Oregon, California, and Minnesota, thereby helping to avoid what can be serious repercussions for individuals and the justice system as a whole. And that’s led some to wonder if it could work in Massachusetts, where small-scale pilots recently began.
“It’s a bit shocking that something so simple could have such a big effect on the rate of people attending court dates,” said Aurélie Ouss, a University of Pennsylvania criminology professor, who coauthored a newly-released study on a texting reminder program recently piloted for 16 months by New York City courts.
In 2016, the New York City Criminal Court system reported that about four in 10 people issued a summons missed their court date and the city has been anxious to find a fix.
The reminders, sent to a randomized group of about 12,700 people who received summonses ordering them to appear at courts citywide for low-level crimes, cut failure-to-appear rates by about 26 percent during the test period.
“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,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an announcement last month about the city’s plans to expand the effort to all defendants who receive a summons.
Other courts are experimenting with text reminders, or plan to do so soon, including those in Maryland, Tennessee, and the ones being piloted here in Massachusetts.
Since May, the state’s probation department has been piloting a program that sends texts to probationers in Greenfield District Court to remind them of key information such as meeting dates, court appearances, and fees they owe. So far the program “has shown very good results,” and there are plans to expand something similar to probation offices statewide, said spokeswoman Coria Holland.
Meanwhile, a recently launched pilot program in the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court has been sending automated phone call reminders to people who have a court date as a result of a civil motor vehicle infraction, if they opt in. Officials said they are exploring the idea of expanding that pilot for all criminal and civil court appearances.
The software being used for that pilot is capable of sending reminders via text message, “which is something that may be explored in the future,” said trial court spokeswoman Jennifer Donahue.
But beyond those two pilots, court notifications in Massachusetts are primarily sent by mail — at least for now.
The effects of a missed court appearance can extend far beyond the individual who didn’t show.
“Docket sizes increase, workloads increase for justice system professionals, and an additional burden may be placed on victims and witnesses,” the National Center for State Courts concluded in a recent paper.
Ouss said the ripple effect extends to police officers whose duties involve finding and arresting people with outstanding warrants, sometimes because they failed to appear in court.
“It’s a big burden on the entire criminal justice system,” she said.
Some no-shows make a conscious decision to avoid court, of course. But “many people fail to appear in court simply because they forget their court date or they just need a reminder — just like we need reminders to go to the doctor’s office,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, Massachusetts’ public defender agency.
Gioia said he would like to see all courts in Massachusetts use automated text message reminder systems.
“It makes sense because so many people have cellphones,” Gioia said.
Around the country, the pilot texting programs have proven relatively cheap to launch and run.
“It’s a no-brainer from a cost standpoint,” said Angela Hawken, a New York University professor and founder and director of BetaGov, an initiative that helps the public sector test ideas, such as trials it has done with courts on using text message reminders.
In New York City, sending a single text costs the city less than a penny — $0.0075 to be exact.
Experts said potential technical hurdles — like syncing the text systems with out-of-date court computers — should, in most cases, be something that can be overcome.
One challenge is collecting people’s numbers. Ouss said some courts may routinely ask for numbers, which would give them a head start.
But in New York City, that information was not previously collected. And during the testing period there, only about 11 percent of summons recipients provided their number.
Of course, not everyone has text messaging capability. About 5 percent of adults in the United States do not own a cellphone, according to the Pew Research Center. Among those making less than $30,000 a year, 8 percent don’t have cellphones. Among those 65 and older, that rate rises to 15 percent.
But the share of people without cellphones is small and has been shrinking in recent years. And some argue that no one communication method is effective at reaching everyone. Many people do not have a landline and others don’t have stable housing where notices can be mailed. Eleven percent of Americans don’t use the Internet at all.
In the end, texts may be more efficient than sending reminders via other methods because they are faster, cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and often more likely to be seen and read by the recipient.
“Sometimes you’re busy and you won’t stop and take a phone call, but you will read a text,” said Maureen Hillhouse, associate director of BetaGov.
Ouss, who led the New York City study, said that while text message reminders are not a silver bullet, they are a step in the right direction.
“By helping drive down failure-to-appear rates with an easy, low-cost, and non-intrusive intervention like sending text messages as a first step, we can then think about other ways to help people for whom text messages are not helpful.”