When defendants fail to appear in court, this can be costly for the criminal justice system because of inefficient use of time and resources. To reduce failure-to-appear (FTA) rates, some court systems have begun sending reminders to defendants about their mandated court appearances. In Nebraska, a pilot court reminder program was implemented in which defendants were sent postcard reminders of their scheduled court dates.
The court date reminder postcards were sent to defendants in 14 counties throughout Nebraska: Adams, Buffalo, Colfax, Dakota, Dawson, Dodge, Douglas, Hall, Lancaster, Madison, Platte, Saline, Sarpy, and Scotts Bluff. The selected counties consisted of both urban and rural areas of the state.
Target Population/Program Activities
Court date reminder postcards were sent out to misdemeanor defendants who had committed nonwaiverable, nontraffic offenses. Misdemeanor defendants in the participating counties were randomly assigned to one of four groups:
- A reminder-only (simple reminder): This consisted of a message printed on a postcard reminding the defendant that he or she was scheduled to appear in court on a specified date and time.
- A reminder with an explanation of consequences for failing to appear (reminder-sanctions notice): This reminder included the information from the reminder-only message as well as additional information that let participants know what would happen if they failed to appear in court.
- A reminder explaining the negative consequences while also highlighting the issues of procedural justice (reminder-combined notice): This reminder included the information from the reminder-sanctions notice, and also emphasized the various conceptual components of procedural justice (voice, dignity, respect, public interest) that are attendant to the defendant’s appearance in court.
- No reminder was sent (control): The defendant received no reminder notice.
An example of the reminder notices can be found in appendix A of the 2011 report by Bornstein, Tomkins, and Neeley (please see the Evidence Base for a link to the report).
The postcard reminders were in a bilingual format (English and Spanish) and were sent by postal mail several days before their scheduled hearing (usually 4 working days before the court date). This meant that postcards typically would arrive at defendants’ residences 2 to 3 days before their scheduled court appearance. Postcard reminders were sent rather than telephone contact because it was expected that home addresses would be a more reliable means of contacting defendants, since many individuals frequently change phone providers.
The pilot program was used not only to examine whether postcard reminder messages could reduce FTA rates but also to test whether specific types of reminder messages were more effective than others. Principles of procedural justice were used to develop the reminder-combined notice sent to some defendants. Procedural justice refers to the extent that individuals understand, respect, and trust the outcomes and decisions that come from the court process, even when those outcomes may not be favorable to individuals (Center for Court Innovation 2011). Research on procedural justice has shown that individuals may be more likely to accept unfavorable outcomes and comply with unwanted rulings if they perceive the court process to be procedurally fair (Bornstein, Tomkins, and Neeley 2011). The message on the reminder-combined notice included language about the neutrality and consistency of the courts’ judgments, the fair treatment of all defendants, and the opportunity for defendants to explain their situation from their own perspectives.
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Bornstein, Tomkins, and Neeley (2011) found significant differences in failure-to-appear (FTA) rates between the experimental groups that received any type of postcard reminder and the control group that received no reminder. The groups who received any reminder had a 9.7 percent FTA rate, compared with the 12.6 percent FTA rate of the control group.
There also were significant differences when comparing the types of reminders that were sent to the experimental groups. The FTA rate for defendants who received the simple reminder (10.9 percent) was significantly higher, compared with the defendants who received the reminders with more substantive information (the reminder-sanctions group had a 8.3 percent FTA rate, and the reminder-combined group had a 9.8 percent FTA rate). Although the group who received the reminder-combined notice (which included procedural justice messages) had a higher FTA rate than the group who received the reminder-sanctions notice, the difference was not statistically significant. This suggests that the inclusion of a more positive message, derived from procedural justice principles, did not yield additional benefit.
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