Millions of People in the U.S. Miss Their Court Date, With Dire Consequences

Every year, millions of people face severe consequences—including arrest, incarceration, fines and fees, and driver’s license suspensions—simply for missing a court date.

Courts and practitioners commonly call this “failure to appear,” but this term can be misleading. In the vast majority of cases, people miss court for reasons that should be understandable. There are logistical challenges, like not being able to miss work, lacking transportation to court, or not having childcare. People may not have recent or updated information about when or where to appear in court. Some may not even know they had a mandatory court date in the first place.

“In practice, missing court is often not a deliberate failure or a deliberate choice,” said Jennifer Peirce, a senior research associate at Vera. “It’s because people are struggling with various other pressures.”

A harsh system

Regardless of the reason people miss court, the United States criminal legal system is often unforgiving. Forty-eight states
and Washington, DC, can impose additional criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for missing a court date. While 39 states plus DC may consider a person’s intentions in missing court to some degree, four states treat failure to appear as a strict liability offense—no evidence of intent is required to hold people criminally responsible for missing court. Failure to appear policies, the Prison Policy Initiative writes, focus on punishment, not on improving appearance rates. Many of the penalties—like driver’s license suspensions—only make it more difficult to get to court.

Yet, the people facing consequences for missing court are commonly not those charged with failure to appear as a crime, but those on pretrial release, probation, or parole who miss a court date. If that happens, they can be found in violation
of the conditions of supervision, which can potentially lead to fines, jail time for people on pretrial supervision or probation, or a return to prison for those on parole.

Courts across the country regularly issue bench warrants for failure to appear, which can lead to arrest and incarceration. In New Mexico, according to an upcoming Vera report, warrants for failure to appear account for 61 percent of all warrants issued.

These policies only help fill jails and prisons across the U.S. In Douglas County, Kansas, from 2017 to 2021, almost a quarter of pretrial jail admissions were due solely to failure to appear. In four rural Washington counties, difficulties navigating court requirements—including missing a court date—were the most common reason for jail bookings from 2015 to 2021. In two North Carolina counties, failing to appear on a misdemeanor was the number one reason people were sent to jail, according to data from 2019 to 2021. There are many more examples of how charges and arrests related to failure to appear lead to unnecessary incarceration.

But a missed court date does not usually pose a threat to public safety. Nonappearance is usually not intentional, and other factors frequently impact a person’s ability to get to court as scheduled. Moreover, in cases in which there is a real flight risk, courts use separate criteria to set bail or deny pretrial release altogether.

Why people miss court

Researchers conducted field studies in New York City to determine how jurisdictions can effectively reduce failures to appear. They found that, in 2015, about 40 percent of people charged with low-level offenses, like disorderly conduct or trespassing in a park after hours, missed their court date. But a few simple fixes—like redesigning the city’s summons ticket to prominently display the court date and location at the top of the ticket (instead of at the bottom) and sending text message reminders ahead of court dates—reduced failures to appear by between 13 and 21 percent from 2016 to 2019. The researchers estimated that these interventions helped prevent nearly 30,000 arrest warrants
for failure to appear from being issued.

These findings reinforce the notion that people are not missing their court dates on purpose. Instead, they point to the prevalence of insufficient awareness. Jurisdictions often issue summonses that relay this information poorly, so people may not even know that they must appear in court in the first place. Court dates are often set weeks or months in advance. Without a reminder, people may simply forget. But when people have support, they do typically show up to court. For example, the Bail Project, which provides bail assistance and pretrial support, said in its 2023 annual report that its clients had a 92 percent court appearance rate.

A drain on resources

People experiencing poverty are more likely
to face consequences for failure to appear—simply because they are more likely to confront challenges that make it more difficult for them to show up to court.

Charging, arresting, and incarcerating people for missing a court date serves only to trap more people in a criminal legal system that appears singularly focused on punishment. A single failure to appear can lead to a whole host of collateral consequences, including the loss of employment and housing. And we know that incarceration is so destabilizing that even a few days in jail increases the likelihood of future arrest and incarceration.

In addition to these social costs, charges and arrest warrants related to failure to appear are financially costly for the system itself. Court personnel, attorneys, police, and jail staff all spend extensive time issuing warrants and holding people in jail for missed court appearances.

“It costs states tens of millions of dollars per year—just for low-level, non-violent criminal cases,” said
Alissa Fishbane, a managing director at ideas42 who conducted the failure to appear field studies in New York City.

What jurisdictions should do instead

There are relatively easy and cost-effective solutions that increase the likelihood that people will show up to court, which will also enable courts to process cases more efficiently. In Multnomah County, Oregon, for example, phone calls to remind people of upcoming court dates decreased failure to appear rates by 37 percent and saved the county more than $210,000 in just six months, far exceeding the $20,000 that the program cost. Other ways of improving court processes, such as allowing walk-ins and easier rescheduling, offer better solutions than the system’s current default of arrest and incarceration. In August 2023, Lawrence, Kansas, which is in Douglas County, introduced a monthly night court session “to reduce the amount of failures to appear.”

Providing resources like translation and transportation services may also increase court appearances. Jurisdictions embracing these solutions can help create a more just system, in which people are not jailed for something that has no impact on public safety.

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