Increase Appearance Rates Tackling Missed Court Dates in North Carolina
Table of Contents
- Understanding the Scale of Missed Court Appearances
- Impact on Law Enforcement and Court Efficiency
- Disparities in Nonappearance Rates and Consequences
- Solutions to Increase Appearance Rates
- Implementation of Solutions
Most people show up for their day in court, but those who don’t can face fines, jail time, and other penalties. However, many individuals who miss court dates are not intentionally ignoring their cases. Lack of transportation, family obligations, or simply forgetting to appear can be to blame. Recognizing the serious consequences of missing court appearances for individuals and the court system as a whole, jurisdictions throughout the country are seeking ways to get more people through the courthouse doors.
To address the problem of missed court dates in North Carolina, particularly for low-level offenses such as minor driving violations, court stakeholders in New Hanover, Robeson, and Orange counties collaborated with the North Carolina Court Appearance Project. In August 2021, each county assembled a group of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and members of law enforcement to study nonappearance rates, identify root causes, and propose solutions.
With technical assistance support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the University of North Carolina School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab, the counties analyzed local court and jail data, as well as court practices and procedures. They then developed policy solutions tailored to the specific needs of their communities and courtrooms. Although the solutions are applicable elsewhere, this article provides a summary of the North Carolina Court Appearance Project’s final report.
Understanding the Scale of Missed Court Appearances
The data revealed that approximately 1 in 6 court cases in North Carolina involved a missed appearance, resulting in nearly a quarter million missed hearings each year. These missed appearances have a significant impact on courts and communities, draining court resources and penalizing individuals for failing to appear for low-level infractions such as traffic violations.
Surprisingly, all but one of the top 10 offenses most likely to result in a missed court date were related to driving infractions. Minor administrative driving offenses, such as expired tags and registration, accounted for seven of the top offenses. When someone fails to appear in court for a motor vehicle offense, the Department of Motor Vehicles is required by state law to revoke their license. Consequently, 1 in 10 North Carolinians have a license suspension due to a missed court date. This further hampers their ability to work, earn a living, and fulfill their family responsibilities.
Impact on Law Enforcement and Court Efficiency
In addition to the consequences for individuals, missed court appearances place a significant burden on law enforcement resources. When someone fails to appear in court, judges often issue a warrant for arrest, commonly known as a bench warrant or an order for arrest. These warrants can remain active for years, and individuals can be taken to jail if they are pulled over by law enforcement for even minor infractions.
Analysis of jail data in two of the participating counties revealed that more people were booked into jail for failing to appear than for any other reason. In fact, about 1 in 6 jail bookings in these counties occurred solely because of a failure to appear. This not only strains law enforcement resources but also creates inefficiencies in the court system. No-shows lead to a large number of rescheduled hearings, which burden court personnel and inconvenience witnesses and victims. The longer a case remains open, the higher the likelihood of a missed court appearance, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Disparities in Nonappearance Rates and Consequences
The data also highlights disparities in nonappearance rates and the consequences associated with missing court. Young adults are twice as likely to miss court compared to individuals aged 60 or older. Moreover, although Black North Carolinians make up only 22% of the state’s population, they account for 40% of criminal cases and 49% of missed court dates. These statistics suggest that individuals from these groups face significant barriers in accessing the court system and may have less confidence in its ability to render fair decisions.
Solutions to Increase Appearance Rates
While limited research exists on what works to improve court appearance rates, available evidence suggests that focusing on supportive and user-friendly services, rather than additional penalties, can make a difference. Based on this understanding, the Court Appearance Project identified five key areas for implementing solutions to increase appearance rates:
1. Help People Understand the Importance of Appearing
- Provide text message reminders to individuals about their court dates.
- Develop forms that are easy to read and understand.
- Create “palm cards” with clear information about getting to court and accompanying citations.
2. Address Barriers to Appearance
- Offer transportation assistance to individuals who struggle with transportation to court.
- Explore virtual court appearance options to accommodate individuals who may have difficulty physically attending court.
3. Make Court More User-Friendly
- Schedule hearings in smaller time blocks to reduce waiting times in court.
- Provide walk-in hours for individuals who need immediate attention.
- Offer services tailored to high-need groups.
- Aim for shorter disposition times to expedite the resolution of cases.
4. Build Community Trust
- Promote diversity among court personnel to foster trust and representation.
- Engage the community in court processes to increase transparency and understanding.
5. Reduce Collateral Harms
- Minimize unnecessary orders for arrest.
- Provide assistance for individuals to restore their licenses.
- Advocate for updates to laws that contribute to the revocation of driving privileges for missed court appearances.
Implementation of Solutions
The three participating counties are actively working to implement the identified solutions. For example, Robeson County, which initially had a 35% nonappearance rate, plans to distribute palm cards and brochures with instructions on utilizing the county’s pickup and drop-off van service. The county has also revised its processes around orders for arrest, allowing a grace period before issuing a warrant for arrest following a missed court date.
Orange County has chosen to schedule select court hearings in 1.5-hour blocks to reduce the time individuals spend waiting in court. They have also created wallet-size palm cards with simple and clear information about getting to court and accessing assistance.
In New Hanover County, court leaders are collaborating with local service organizations to provide support to high-need individuals facing criminal charges and help them attend court. The county has also developed guidance on when arrest warrants should be issued for missed court dates and recommended against their use for administrative traffic cases.
All three jurisdictions are exploring the use of text message reminders, license restoration services, and virtual court appearance options. They have also made joint recommendations for state-level reforms, including simplifying court forms and discontinuing the practice of revoking driving privileges for missed court appearances.
Understanding the reasons behind missed court appearances and finding ways to improve appearance rates is a complex task. However, the North Carolina Court Appearance Project has made significant progress in addressing this issue. The work carried out by these counties serves as a model for other jurisdictions interested in increasing court attendance and enhancing the efficiency of the court system. By implementing the identified solutions, communities can ensure that individuals have the opportunity to fulfill their court obligations while receiving fair and equitable treatment.