Imagine a police officer accusing a man of disorderly conduct and giving an appointment for him to appear in court. The man slips into his wallet, where he soon forgets. Then, a year later, he retired for speeding and learns that his failure to appear in court resulted in an arrest warrant.
The situation of man is surprisingly common. From January 1, 2016 to June 14, 2017, New York City police officers issued 323,922 criminal subpoenas for minor offenses, such as being in a closed park at dusk, urinating in public, or carrying an open alcohol container. out. If it is presented to the courts, the case is often dismissed.
Still, about 40 percent or more of these New Yorkers typically miss the court date, usually scheduled 60 to 90 days after issuing the appointment, resulting in an arrest warrant. But punitive measures such as arrests may not be necessary to bring these defendants to trial, a new study suggests.
Simple interventions, namely renewing the summons form to emphasize the court date and the possibility of arrest and sending text reminders for an upcoming court appearance, help reduce non-filing fees, online researchers report on 8 October in Science. The study evaluated these two policy changes in the New York City convocation process that were gradually introduced during 2016. These “behavioral pushes” resulted in nearly 31,000 fewer arrest warrants from August 2016 to September 2019 than there would have been from another way, the researchers estimate.
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These measures will not address the systemic inequalities that cause more poor black and brown and brown people to receive these citations than others, the authors say, but the changes provide a more humane approach to criminal justice that also saves money. For example, sending each recipient of the call three text reminders would cost $ 4,500 a year in New York, according to the authors. The approximately 31,000 guarantees avoided during the three-year period saved approximately $ 650,000 in court costs alone.
“This is a simple, cost-effective, and beneficial solution for everyone,” says Alissa Fishbane, CEO of ideas42, an international company that uses behavioral science to help solve social problems.
Renewed forms and text messages are examples of what behavioral scientists call pushes, relatively inexpensive behavioral changes that result from psychological research. Behavioral pushes are popular, appearing in a number of different scenarios, from encouraging people to donate organs forcing them to choose not to, to pushing people toward better diets by placing healthy food at eye level in grocery stores (SN: 3 / 17/8).
In the new study, Fishbane and colleagues – economist Aurélie Ouss of the University of Pennsylvania and behavioral scientist Anuj Shah of the University of Chicago – worked with the city to redesign the old call form. The renewed form showed the date of the court and the warnings about the possibility of arrest at the top instead of at the bottom and back. Police officers were instructed to switch to the new form when their block of old forms was exhausted or when a new block was issued to them, with change dates from March to July 2016.
A. Fishbane, A. Ouss, and A.K. Shah / Science 2020
A. Fishbane, A. Ouss, and A.K. Shah / Science 2020
Investigators analyzed the 40 days before and after the officers who began using the new forms and compared how many defendants who received the previous form missed the court appointment with those who received the new one. Prior to the change, about 47 percent of defendants did not show up; then 40.8 percent of the defendants did not appear.
In a second experiment, investigators expanded 11 percent of defendants who provided a cell phone number into the new form. Among those 23,243 individuals, some received text messages reminding them of pending court dates and the consequences of not appearing, while a control group did not receive any messages. Nearly 38 percent of individuals in the control group missed court appointments, compared to only 30 percent of those who received text messages.
Overall, New York City police issued 426,000 court summonses between August 2016 and November 2019, three years after the changes went into effect. Assuming that 40 percent of people do not go to court, that would mean 174,600 arrest warrants. The team estimates that approximately 23,000 of those orders were avoided as a result of the new forms and nearly 7,900 because of the texts.
The authors note that other cities, many of which still use forms similar to old New York, are seeing these pushes. “Other places are interested in finding out if we can design similar interventions for them,” Ouss says.
Jiaying Zhao, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who did not participate in the study, notes that more than half of those nearly 324,000 calls in New York City in 2016 and 2017 were issued in the poorest 30 percent of census tracts. Poor people probably miss court appointments because their minds are overloaded with other concerns, including financial ones, she says. "I think (this study) really talks about the psychological burdens of poverty."