Hey, Accused Person: You’ve Got Mail

One of the costs to the justice system is the failure of many who are accused of summary conviction offences to appear at scheduled court hearings. A group of researchers in the US studied the effect on the no-show rate of sending out reminder postcards. These would be cheaper than the reminder phone calls typically used in many jurisdictions. The study sample was roughly 8,000 “misdemeanants” in Nebraska, a selection of whom received one of three postcards, each with somewhat different wording (as to consequences of failure to appear). The results are described thus in the current issue [PDF] of the University of Toronto’s Criminological Highlights:

The results were simple. All reminders worked, but explaining the sanctions that could be imposed for a failure to appear (with or without the ‘justice’ message) worked better. The proportion of failures to appear were as follows:

No reminder: 12.6%
Reminder only: 10.9%
Reminder & sanction: 9.1%

These findings would suggest that there could be substantially fewer failures to appear if simple reminders were sent out that included the time and place of the court hearing and warnings about the criminal consequences of failing to appear.

The study itself [Rosenbaum, David I., Nicole Hutsell, Alan J. Tomkins, Brian H. Bornstein, Mitchel N. Herian and Elizabeth M. Neeley. (2012) Court Date Reminder Cards. Judicature, 95(4), 177- 187] can be found online in the Court Review [PDF].

What isn’t clear to me is whether the use of this “retro” technology — paper and snail mail — was a considered choice among more up-to-date alternative methods of communication (apart from telephoning, that is). I wonder whether automatic text messages or an automated message to a cell phone might not produce an even better response. On the other hand, the novelty of getting a postcard might charm people into doing as it asked.


  1. Maryellen Symons

    Electronic reminders might be more effective. A postcard could have the advantage, though, that “Accused Person” can put it on the fridge, inside front door, bathroom mirror, or wherever it will help him/her remember.

  2. I suspect that the some in the Harperite autocracy? theocracy? – it’s certainly not a meritocracy – would happily require everybody charged with any offence to wear a GPS tracking device that would issue a small electric shock as a reminder of an upcoming court date. (And, the PtB would be able to track which polling booth the person went to, too.) After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ll not forget because you don’t need protection from the law, right?