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Automated reminders aim to reduce no-shows for court

In 2017, the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center spearheaded an automated notification system that sends people reminders about their court dates via text, email, or phone. Two years later, the initiative has enrolled more than 8,200 people.

The project was launched in an effort to reduce the number of people who are charged with failing to appear in court in Durham County.

At the CJRC, James Stuit, gang reduction manager, and Beth Steenberg, quality assurance and data integrity manager, have made it a priority to investigate this issue. The reasons why people don’t show up to court vary based on the individual, they said. Often, people forget their court dates, or they do not have transportation to get to court. 

“I think the two biggest reasons were that either they forgot, or they were hoping the system forgot,” Steenberg said based on prior conversations with justice-involved individuals. The automated notification system tries to address both of those issues. By receiving direct contact from the justice system, people may be less likely to slip through the cracks.

Signing up is simple. People with charges in Durham County can go to the program’s website and register for the alerts. They can also register through a paper form at their first appearance, jail booking, or pre-trial service. The CJRC seeks to maintain participant privacy and has made it easy for people to sign up anonymously. 

After the participant selects which methods of contact they prefer, the technology takes care of the rest. Before their next court appearance, the participant will receive a phone call, email, or text with the details of their appointment. Two reminders are issued: the first alert is sent three days before the court appearance and the second is sent the day before the person’s court date.

As of 2019, the program has upwards of 8,200 total enrollments. Last year, approximately half of the participants were registered during first appearances, while just under a quarter signed up online.

People who have used the program said that it has helped them stay organized. While it has been useful, participants have also discussed the need for additional information in the messages, such as parking location or courtroom numbers. 

The CJRC has partnered with Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight and  Durham’s Innovation Team to implement the project. In 2018, the Center for Advanced Hindsight launched an experiment to incorporate behavioral science into the wording of the notifications. The researchers wanted to see whether a message that discussed the consequences of not showing up and nudged individuals to plan for their court day were more effective. The different message styles were compared across texts, emails, and phone calls.

Joseph Sherlock, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, said that the study only noticed an effect among participants who opted to receive texts. There was an approximately 2% decrease in charges for failing to appear in court for people who received the new message style via text when compared with the old message model.

“I think this may in part be due to limited attention,” Sherlock said, explaining that participants may be more willing to pay attention to the content in a text reminder just because it is shorter.

“We are what we would call cognitive misers. We go through life trying to minimize the amount that we have to process,” he said. 

One of the biggest challenges of the program has been collecting data to evaluate its impact. The CJRC has found it tough to determine whether the automated notification system has actually reduced rates of no-shows in Durham County.

Court appearances are still recorded by-hand on stacks of paper that are kept at the courthouse. Without a digital system to view this court data, analyzing it is laborious.

“We were polishing a technology dimension when in other places it didn’t even exist. So, it was like putting the icing on the cake before we even had the cake,” said Sherlock. 

The reminder program has had a steady number of monthly enrollments. The CJRC hopes to expand the program to more participants in Durham and add more features to the technology.

Sherlock thinks that it should be easier for citizens to interact with the government, especially the justice system.

“There’s an argument that we should be making government service use generally as simple as possible, particularly for those who are time or money scarce,” he said. “When we make it difficult for them, it is a huge tax for them because their bandwidth is already stretched.”

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