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Redesigning Summons Forms to be clearer and more supportive

What should a paper-based warning or order look like, to make it actionable and clear for people? Ideas42 worked with the New York City government to create new designs of the Summons document that people get for criminal court cases. Read more about it at Ideas42 page.

This change in the document accompanies more systemic changes.


Steps to ensure that people who receive a summons appear in court include:

  • A redesigned summons form that makes the date of appearance easier to understand. The City and courts worked with ideas42, a non-profit behavioral design lab, to redesign the summons form making information easier to understand in order to better prompt people to return to court. Additionally, the new form will collect individuals’ phone numbers and include a phone number and website where recipients can access their cases, view when their court appearance is scheduled, and determine whether they have outstanding warrants. The website will also have translated copies of the summons form. The new form will be operational this summer. A comparison of the old form and the new form, and additional information about the science driving these changes, is available above. This effort was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
  • A reminder system to ensure defendants appear in court. The courts will test a number of different reminders citywide during the fall of 2015, using both robocalls and text messages. The results of this pilot will be carefully examined and the most effective method will be scaled up citywide.
  • Flexible appearance date and night court. Sometimes people who want to make their court appearances and resolve their cases sometimes have work, family or other life conflicts with their court dates. Beginning with a pilot in Manhattan North, individuals who have received summonses will be permitted to appear any time a week in advance of their court appearance. The court will also be open until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesdays. If these pilots increase court appearances, the programs will be scaled up citywide.

Steps to enhance transparency and improve the quality of justice in summons court include:

  • Publicly available quarterly data. Four times a year, the City will post data showing summons activity broken down by charge and precinct, allowing access to enforcement trends on the neighborhood level. Going forward, the police department’s annual report will also include summons activity with details such as the location at which a summons is issued and the race of the recipient. Explore this data.
  • Real-time, electronic access to case files. Since April 2015, the Court has been providing defense attorneys with tablets that provide them with all of the factual allegations docketed for that day so they can better advise their clients and quicken the adjudication process.
  • Online payment of fines. Beginning this summer, the courts will implement a new process permitting people convicted of summons offenses to pay fines online.
  • Training on collateral consequences for court-appointed attorneys and Judicial Hearing Officers. Since late March 2015, court-appointed attorneys and Judicial Hearing Officers have been trained in how to better advise clients about the collateral consequences associated with summonses.

Source: Summons Reform


Ideas42, the Behavioral Design Lab, has more details about how they chose to redesign the form to better work with people’s behavior and biases.

One of the insights we discovered was related to New Yorkers’ mental models, or personal understandings and beliefs, based on impressions or anecdotal information, of what the court experience would be like and what it represented. In this case, attending court was strongly associated with lost work time and wages, unrealistically steep fines, and uncomfortable experiences. These perceptions were strong enough that some people who were fully aware of arrest warrants for FTA still chose to miss their court date. In doing so, they were avoiding a negative experience now while risking a far worse one—arrest— down the line. Furthermore, many people who received summonses for small offenses—like spitting or littering—felt that having to go to court was a penalty that far outweighed their mental model of the violation’s seriousness. In other words, the punishment didn’t fit the crime, so they chose not to appear.

Some of these negative perceptions were further compounded because many New Yorkers affected by summonses are lower-income and experiencing some form of time and/or resource scarcity, making juggling workday court appointments and far off dates even more difficult. For those experiencing scarcity, it can be challenging to change work schedules or make other necessary arrangements to appear in court. Many don’t have steady work shifts, making the 2-3 month delay between summons issue and court dates an additional hassle. During this lag time, some people we interviewed reported experiencing unpredictable changes in job or housing, making it even more difficult to plan ahead for a court date.

With these and other insights from behavioral science in mind, we redesigned the physical layout of the pink summons ticket. The new form prominently features the appearance date and court location at the top of the ticket, where people are more likely to see it (the old version had this information at the very bottom where it was easily overlooked). The new form also clearly states in bold typeface that missing the assigned court date will lead to a warrant (important information that was completely absent from the previous form). Behavioral science tells us that simple tweaks like these can have an outsized impact on how people act.

Source, Ideas42 blog here

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