In California, missing a criminal court date means facing additional charges, fines, and incarceration. These punishments disproportionately impact low income individuals and people of color accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, while failing to improve public safety according to a state-by-state analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). .
PPI researchers found that a total of 41 states slap people who fail to appear in court with new criminal penalties, which might include contempt of court, misdemeanors, or felony charges.
Penal codes in nineteen states and the District of Columbia impose jail or prison time. In 16 states and D.C., people can face fines and fees for not showing up in court.
CA is one of just nine states where judges can impose all three of those categories of punishment for “failure to appear.”
Lower-income defendants are more likely to miss court because they can’t afford to take time off of work or because they lack transportation or childcare. Homelessness, physical or mental illness, drug use issues, difficulty navigating a confusing court building, and fear and overwhelm are other reasons people miss their court dates.
In California, judges can issue bench warrants if defendants are even five minutes late to court.
Most people who miss a court date are not trying to evade justice and eventually return to court, data shows.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 25% of people facing felonies in the 75 largest urban counties in the nation who were released on their own recognizance failed to appear in court. Yet, fewer than 8% of people failed to return to court within a year.
Moreover, that BJS study revealed that a large majority — 87% — of those people were accused of property crimes, drug crimes, and other nonviolent offenses.
Issuing bench warrants for these individuals only clogs the court system further, and keeps people, many of whom would not have faced jail time on their original charges, locked in a cycle of incarceration and debt.
A report from the North Carolina Court Appearance Project looking at jail booking data between 2019 and 2021 found that the most common reason people were incarcerated was for failing to show up at court on a misdemeanor charge. “Put another way, many of these people were jailed for missing court for original charges that would never have resulted in jail time,” PPI’s Brian Nam-Sonenstein writes.
While flooding the system with bench warrants is counterproductive to the goal of getting people to court, there are proven strategies for increasing appearance rates.
In July 2023, a report from the Judicial Council of California found that a pilot program born of the COVID-19 pandemic and focused on reducing overcrowding in jails by increasing pretrial release rates — in part, by implementing a text and phone call reminder system for court dates — reduced failure to appear rates by 6.8% for people accused of misdemeanor crimes.
The Bail Project offers court date reminders and secures transportation, food, housing, and health care for people who might miss court without those essential needs being met.
In Los Angeles, residents have two relatively new options for receiving court reminders.
As of 2022, people with cases in the Los Angeles Superior Court system can sign up for court reminders through a new Hearing Reminder Service.
CourtReminders.org, developed in collaboration between the nonprofit Fund for Guaranteed Income, JusticeLA, and The Bail Project, offers a community-based alternative to the government-run program, which may be preferable for people who are afraid of sharing their personal identifying information with the Court ID system. Users can sign up with just a case number to receive several reminders leading up to their court date.
Court systems could also be simplified to reduce confusion and make it easier for people to show up, according to PPI. Courts should also work to differentiate between cases in which people are intentionally evading court, and when they are absent for other reasons.
“‘Failure to appear’ does not threaten our safety in the way that bail reform opponents present it — what’s more pernicious is how it has traditionally been used as a backdoor to punishing people before they’ve even been convicted of a crime,” PPI’s Brian Nam-Sonenstein writes. “In addition to stopping unnecessary policing that ensnares people in criminal legal processes in the first place, more work needs to be done to actually address obstacles to attendance and move away from harsh and punitive postures toward missed court dates.”