Texting has become the preferred method of communication in America today. We may not like it. But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! That’s exactly what numerous public defenders are doing in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania Virginia, and New York, with more states to come. These offices are using a distinct series of text messages to remind defendants of court dates, and the results have been staggering.

The Avoidable FTA

If a defendant misses a criminal court hearing, a Failure to Appear (FTA) is issued along with a bench warrant. Though difficult to count, about 57% of misdemeanors lead to FTAs. These underlying crimes would not normally carry jail time, but may once a bench warrant is issued. These warrants come with a high price. Defendants often lose their job and custody of their children. Monetary costs are also staggering, estimated to be about $14 billion a year in the United States. Reducing bench warrants stemming from FTAs would be a huge boost to defendants and to budgets. But officials were stumped on how to do that. Until now.

Corporations have set out to solve this problem using behavioral science. They assumed the FTAs were benign — that either the defendant forgot about the court date or forgot to make logistical scheduling accommodations to attend the court date. By giving them advanced notice of the date, like a Calendar Reminder sent via text, they might be more likely to plan, prepare, and participate in the court date. And it turns out they were right. They have found that people who receive texts reminding them to make plans for the appearance, coupled with texts that detail the consequence for missing the date, were 26% more likely to make their court appearance than those who received no texts at all.

But at What Price?

The cost to implement this text messaging service is quite low compared to the $14 billion FTAs are costing the public. Typically, corporations charge about $20,000 to install the automated program, and then about $2 per defendant per year to administer the texts. It certainly wouldn’t take PD offices very long to recover their costs.

But perhaps more important that the fiscal bottom line is quality of life for the defendants. In a world that often stereotypes FTAs as flight-risk criminals, a system like this can change appearance rates and perceptions. One company providing this service put it quite eloquently, hoping that the criminal justice system will continue to use behavioral science in its interactions with defendants.

“This is one of the first attempts to show that behavioral interventions can work in criminal justice,” she said. “If someone violates parole, we take a heavy hand. But perhaps the same mechanism [used in the texting program] can be applied [to parole] as well: Helping people be more successful in following through on conditions could be another way to avoid unnecessary harm to the person and system in general.”

If you won’t be able to make it to a scheduled court appearance, let your criminal defense lawyer know as soon as possible, so proper arrangements can be made, and penalties avoided.

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