Case Study

Court Date Reminders


The Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC) seeks to “promote public safety through support for the local criminal justice system.” A key pretrial service provided by the CJRC is an opt-in, court date reminder system aimed at decreasing the failure to appear (FTA) rate in Durham County. The CJRC estimates that upwards of 10% of detainees at the Durham County Detention Center are there due to an FTA charge. FTA charges are thus an expensive and undesirable outcome for both defendants and the county.


While the current CJRC pretrial reminder system has had an impact on decreasing FTA rates for those who opt-in, a study conducted in New York City suggests that messages which emphasize potential consequences and/or encourage defendants to plan ahead may have greater effect (Cooke et al. 2018). Working with the CAH and City of Durham Innovation Team (i-Team), CJRC sought to evaluate the effectiveness of consequence and plan-ahead messages as a tool for FTA mitigation.

Experimental Design

In August 2018, consequence- and planning-based messaging were tested as a tool for FTA mitigation. Using the current CJRC pretrial reminder system (option of phone, email, or SMS), a treatment message was compared to a neutral control message. The primary outcome of interest was the rate at which court dates were missed–referred to as a “called and failed” (CF). CF status is a proxy measurement for a case being FTA (technically, an FTA charge is issued if a CF is not remedied after a certain period of time).

The following behavioral concepts were used to inform the treatment (consequences and plan-ahead messaging):

  • Loss Aversion – Individuals respond more strongly to potential losses than they do potential gains of equivalent size.
  • Pre-Commitment – Pre-commitment functions through cognitive dissonance, which is the tension felt by individuals as a result of two conflicting ideas or feelings.
  • Implementation Intention – Implementation intentions support goal setting by setting out specifically what an individual will do in order to accomplish their goal.
  • Tangibility – Individuals often have difficulty contextualizing abstract ideas and use mental shortcuts to simplify complex decision spaces.


Data was collected for seven months, consisting of 16,971 cases with 8,798 court dates across 2,934 defendants. Overall, the treatment message did not appear to significantly impact CF rate.

Figure 1. CF rate by message frame.

However, the effect of the treatment message varied across media types. There was no significant difference in CF rate between conditions among those who received a phone reminder or an email, but there was a 16% reduction in the CF rate for those receiving a treatment text. This effect held for individuals receiving only a text message or a text message in combination with another reminder type.

Figure 2. CF rate by message type frame for text message (SMS) reminders.

Policy Implications

If all defendants who opted in to receive a reminder were sent the treatment text, there would be an estimated 288 fewer CFs over the course of a year. In the future, defaulting defendants into the reminder system or defaulting those who opt for reminders to receive a text message with consequences and planning message framing could drastically lower the CF rate.

Why it matters

FTA charges are an expensive and undesirable outcome for both defendants and the county. All parties involved stand to benefit from more effective reminder messaging, and thus, reduced FTA charges.