Courts Impose Outsized Punishments for Failing to Appear in Court

LA County Criminal Courts building by Ken Lund, Flickr.
Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

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, which bails people out of jail and offers pretrial support, reports a 92% court appearance rate for people the program supports. 

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.”


  • Create automatic telephone appearance so that advance telephone appearance arrangements are not needed. This phone type of appearance for everyone would provide for an efficient appearance method.

  • Hey, Albert [WLA edit}! A text reminder would’ve saved me from an FTA that’s for sure. That’s an excellent idea for sure!

  • I am in court every day and can tell you that an extreme high percentage of people who don’t show up for court fail to appear because they don’t want to accept the consequences of their criminal conduct. Also, the statistics you show that only 8% of them failed to show up in court within a year is almost certainly because the vast majority of them were arrested on their bench warrants, not because they voluntarily came to court These deceptive studies funded by pro-criminal, anti-victim academics, who want to empty our prisons, have no problem manipulating their statistics to do it. By the way, these are the same people that when they are themselves actual victims of crime, they almost always seem to want the harshest penalties possible! Buying large, they are a bunch of complete hypocrites!

  • The courts set your court dates 2 to 3 months . After 3 months, people tend to forget and then “Ooooh no, I had court yesterday.” They don’t intentionally miss the date. Another thing is if the courts provided people with the paperwork from their case(like they used to give after a hearing) instead of a business card or scrap piece of paper with the next court date on it would also help.

  • John Lewin – We have one within our Department. He is a Deputy, and works at one of our jails. You are a smart man.. do the rest.
    Your words ” people who don’t show up for court fail to appear because they don’t want to accept the consequences of their criminal conduct”.

  • I find the excuse crowd laughable. They speak of reminders, texts, emails and other means of “reminding” them of their obligations, as if it’s someone else’s responsibility for their appearance to their court case. When are we going to stop holding the hands of adults and force them to act as such?

    The other laughable part to the “they don’t send me a text” every single one of these people have a phone which has a calendar built in, but they can’t seem how to remember to enter “court” as one of their to-do’s

  • I pay a tax on my cell phone bill, that tax is for lower income people to be able to get cell phones, which I know they have. With that said, a cell phone has an app with a calendar. If you put your scheduled next court appointment in the calendar, you can actually set a reminder for such date. With that reminder, you have SO many options to set yet another reminder from 5 minutes to days.

    It crazy these days how we don’t hold people accountable for not only their actions, but their responsibility to show up to something ON TIME. The biggest stat you left out is how much crime SOME of these people are commiting, but then again, you are ok with it because it’s a “non-violent” crime Ha Ha……..

  • Yes Jack Sparrow that is exactly the reason most people do not show up and this comes from someone who has been in and outta the system for years and have grown up seeing this amongst friends family and my entire environment. Do not speak about that which you do not know. Warrants hold people responsible, otherwise nobody would return to court. Just keep on giving criminals a free pass and see what happens. I doubt my life would be on the right track today without forced accountability.

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