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Program Profile: Court Date Reminder Notices (Nebraska)

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on January 29, 2013

Program Summary

To reduce failure-to-appear rates, postcard reminders were sent to misdemeanor defendants to remind them of their scheduled court dates. The program is rated Promising. There were significant differences in failure-to-appear rates between the experimental groups that received any type of postcard reminder and the control group that received no reminder.

Program Description

Program Goals
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.

Target Site
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.

Program Theory
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.

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1
Failure-to-Appear Rates

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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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1
Bornstein, Tomkins, and Neeley (2011) used an experimental design to examine whether court reminders sent by mail would reduce defendants’ failure-to-appear (FTA) rates. The study included 7,865 misdemeanor defendants from 14 Nebraska counties. To be included in the sample, a defendant had to meet certain eligibility criteria (such as minimum age, type of offense, and scheduling of court hearing). A case was excluded if the defendant could waive his or her court appearance (such as for minor traffic offenses), or if the case was assigned to a court date too close to the study date and a reminder could not be sent in sufficiently rapid time.

The sample was 69.8 percent white, 10.7 percent Hispanic, 10.1 percent African American, 6.6 percent unknown, 1.6 percent Native American, 1.0 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent other. The study authors did not provide specific information on the gender and age distribution of the defendants (however, all defendants had to be at least 19 years old to be included in the sample). All of the misdemeanor categories were represented in the sample. For example, 30.5 percent of the sample had been charged with a Class W offense (an alcohol-related misdemeanor); 31.0 percent were charged with violations of city ordinances (such as destroying property); 17.6 percent were charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor (such as a first offense for carrying a concealed weapon); 9.3 percent were charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor (such as shoplifting); and 11.7 percent were charged with either a Class 3, 3A, 4, or 5 misdemeanor.

Each misdemeanor defendant was randomly assigned to one of four conditions: 1) the control condition that received no reminder (n=2,095); 2) the simple reminder-only condition (n=1,889); 3) the reminder-sanctions condition (n=1,901); and 4) the reminder-combined condition (n=1,980). The reminder-combined condition received a reminder message that included information on sanctions and language about the procedural justice of the court system, because feedback from court personnel suggested that it would be unrealistic for courts to include the “positive” information without also mentioning the “negative” information (it could have implied an absence of penalties for failure to appear, which was not the case).

The primary outcome of interest was whether defendants appeared for their scheduled court dates (FTA rates). Data collection occurred between March 2009 and May 2010. Data was collected from the court systems in all 14 counties included in the study.

Postcard reminders were sent out usually 4 working days before a defendant’s scheduled court date. If a postcard was returned because of an incorrect address, the defendant was removed immediately from the sample.
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Bornstein, Tomkins, and Neeley (2011) conducted a preliminary cost-benefit analysis on reducing failure-to-appear (FTA) rates in court. The findings are exploratory, because it was difficult to estimate the labor costs for many activities (such as clearing warrants and processing bookings), and the costs are likely to differ across the various counties included in the study. Extrapolating from labor estimates that were provided by court personnel as well as state data on employee wages, the costs saved on labor by eliminating even a single FTA was between $50.00 and $83.00. The costs of the reminder postcards varied, primarily because of the size of the postcard (the reminder-sanctions and reminder-combined notices were larger and therefore cost more to mail). Overall, the reminder postcards cost between $1.46 and $1.68 each to send. The study results and cost–benefit analysis suggest that it would be cost effective to implement a postcard reminder program only in counties with relatively high rates of arrest of defendants with FTA warrants.
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Bornstein, Brian H., Alan J. Tomkins, and Elizabeth M. Neeley. 2011. Reducing Courts’ Failure to Appear Rate: A Procedural Justice Approach. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program, National Institute of Justice.
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Center for Court Innovation. 2011. Procedural Fairness in California: Imitative, Challenges, and Recommendations. New York, N.Y.: Center for Court Innovation.

Herian, Mitchel N., and Brian H. Bornstein. 2010. “Reducing Failure to Appear in Nebraska: A Field Study.” The Nebraska Lawyer September:11–14.
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Related Practices

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Following are practices that are related to this program:

Pretrial Interventions for Ensuring Appearance in Court
During the pretrial process, defendants may be released on certain conditions. To ensure that released defendants show up to their court date, jurisdictions have used three strategies: 1) court-date reminder notifications, 2) bonds, and 3) supervision in the community. The goal of is to reduce the failure-to-appear rates of defendants. Across the three strategies, the practice is rated Promising for decreasing failure-to-appear rates, but rated No Effects for reducing arrest rates.

Evidence Ratings for Outcomes:
Promising - One Meta-Analysis Justice Systems or Processes - Failure-to-Appear
No Effects - One Meta-Analysis Crime & Delinquency - Multiple crime/offense types
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Program Snapshot

Age: 19+

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Black, American Indians/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, White, Other

Geography: Rural, Suburban, Urban

Setting (Delivery): Courts

Program Type: Reminders/Notifications