In effort to reduce no-shows, Lawrence Municipal Court will test phone call reminders

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

Lawrence Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller is shown in the municipal courtroom on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Miller proposed the idea of reminder phone calls to defendants, in hopes of reducing failure-to-appear rates in the court.

There are people who skip court on purpose. Sometimes repeatedly.

Then there are people who miss court because they forgot, or wrote down the wrong day or time.

Lawrence Municipal Court is going to try something new in hopes of reducing no-shows, at least in the latter category: phone call reminders of upcoming court dates.

The failure-to-appear rate at Lawrence Municipal Court isn’t good, and it’s been getting progressively worse in recent years, Lawrence Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller said.

So far in 2018, for misdemeanor criminal arraignments, the average failure-to-appear rate is 40 percent, Miller said.

That’s up from an average failure to appear rate of 35 percent in 2017 and 31 percent in 2016.

Miller — who has been Lawrence’s municipal court judge for the past seven years — said his criminal arraignment docket has the worst failure to appear rate of all categories of cases in his courtroom, but no-shows have also been on the rise in other categories.

Miller’s plan is simply to have clerks start calling defendants ahead of time to remind them that they have court.

They’ll probably call a couple days in advance, in case people who forgot need time to adjust work schedules or plan for other arrangements, Miller said. Also, having clerks call in person will allow defendants to ask questions and maybe even get a date moved if needed, which clerks may be able to do in certain types of cases.

It’s a pilot plan. Miller said he’ll reassess whether to keep doing it once he sees if it helps the court’s failure to appear rates.

He said he hopes to have clerks begin making calls in the coming month and that they’ll probably start with calling defendants on the dockets with the highest failure to appear rates.

Existing staff will be absorbing the extra work, so there’s not an extra cost, Miller said. He said the staff has calculated they’ll be able to commit less than 10 hours a week to the effort.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.

Statewide push

The phone-calling effort was spurred by the recent release of recommendations by an ad-hoc committee created a year ago by the Kansas Supreme Court to review bonding practices, fines and fees of the state’s municipal courts.

Miller, one of a small number of full-time municipal court judges in the state, was on that committee.

Committee chairwoman Brenda Stoss, a municipal judge in Salina and New Cambria, called the effort the first comprehensive look at municipal court practices statewide, in a news release shared by the League of Kansas Municipalities and the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration.

“The recommendations are important for municipal courts across the state as well as for the residents of Kansas who appear before these courts,” Stoss said.

The committee’s full report and 18 recommendations focus heavily on fairness for “economically disadvantaged” defendants.

Miller emphasized that municipal courts statewide vary drastically in size, how often court is held and who oversees it, among other factors.

He said Lawrence Municipal Court is already doing almost all the things on the recommendation list, including having a fixed bond schedule that orders a personal recognizance bond for arrests on almost all misdemeanors and offering community service and life-skill class participation as alternatives to financial payment as punishment.

Developing a hearing notification strategy is one thing Lawrence Municipal Court wasn’t already doing.

The committee’s report points out how no-shows both waste public resources and compound problems for defendants.

“One of the least desirable outcomes of any scheduled court appearance is a failure to appear by the defendant,” the report says. “The process of preparing dockets, reviewing cases for the issuance of warrants and then issuing those warrants is a drain on court resources… For the warrant arrestee, being plucked from his or her daily life and made to post bail, or remain in jail until released by the judge, can put relationships, employment and housing in jeopardy.”

The report says that hearing notification — through mailed letters or postcards, live phone calls, automated phone calls or text messages — has been shown to reduce failures to appear, according to a brief prepared by the Pretrial Justice Center for Courts.

While not all municipal courts have significant failure to appear problems, for those that do the potential benefits of hearing notifications is “compelling,” the report says.

In Douglas County District Court, the clerk’s office doesn’t have a notification system for out-of-custody defendants, Clerk of the District Court Douglas Hamilton said.

He said his office at one point discussed using its automated juror notification system to send hearing reminders to defendants, but that ultimately was nixed due to technical issues.

photo by: Chris Conde

Lawrence Municipal Court, 2018.

Impact on jail population

Reducing municipal court no-shows could impact jail overcrowding, though it would be very slight, Miller said.

He said the Douglas County Jail’s average daily population of people being held for municipal court is in the low 20s — that’s out of a total daily population of 230 or more, according to tallies from the county previously reported by the Journal-World.

For any of those 20-some people in jail after being arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in municipal court, maybe hearing notification would have helped.

“If we reduce failures to appear, we might end up reducing that,” Miller said.

However, Miller said, depending on the type of case, not everyone who fails to appear gets a warrant. And even if someone is issued a warrant for failing to appear, not all failure to appear warrants result in someone being arrested and going to jail.

“When we issue warrants, we send notice that a warrant has been issued for each case to each defendant,” Miller said. “We also have a walk-in docket every day, where people who have missed court can come in and make a case for the warrant to be set aside.”

When people do get a warrant for failing to appear, Miller said he sets the bond amount on a case-by-case basis. Factors include how many times they’ve previously failed to appear, the nature and number of their charges and the type of hearing they missed — for example, skipping a sentencing is worse than missing an arraignment hearing.

Why the rise in no-shows?

Miller said he’s not sure why more people are missing court.

“The Court has not made it more difficult to appear, nor has it increased the number of appearances an individual has to make to resolve his or her case,” he said.

Anecdotally, Miller said he does suspect serious addictions are making it worse, and those seem to be on the rise.

“Although I have regularly dealt with many people with serious substance abuse disorders during my time as a judge, I feel like I am seeing more people with serious addictions that make it impossible for them to succeed in the court system in any meaningful way,” Miller said.

Miller said methamphetamine has been a problem but he thinks he’s seeing more opiate addictions as well, and there are often wait lists for beds in state-funded treatment centers.

“Although I can’t point to anything other than my perception and experience,” Miller said, “I personally believe these problems are contributing to the increased numbers of failures to appear.”

Lawrence Municipal Court failure to appear rates

For misdemeanor criminal arraignments:

2018 to date — 40 percent

2017 — 35 percent

2016 — 31 percent

For misdemeanor traffic arraignments on offenses carrying the possibility of jail:

2018 to date — 25 percent

2017 — 24 percent

2016 — 23 percent

Numbers represent yearly averages of monthly failure to appear rates, with 2018 numbers through September.

— Source: Judge Scott Miller

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd


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