By Holly Werris
EASTHAMPTON, MASS – When a person accused of a crime fails to appear in court, the worst of their character is commonly assumed, but fines and arrest warrants used in the name of public safety and to decrease flight risk not only have failed, but are harmful to both the person accused and communities.
The study, conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, utilized the National Conference of State Legislature’s Statutory Responses to Failure to Appear database to analyze more than 80 policies across the nation.
It found that, exempting nine states, each state allows additional charges to be brought against accused who miss court. Additional jail time and fines are also common punishments for those who fail to appear.
In jurisdictions that use pretrial risk assessment tools, failing to appear increases the likelihood of pretrial detention, and can lead to the accused spending months or even years in jail, said PPI, noting in jurisdictions without these tools, a judge’s own bias operates in the same way.
The justification offered for these measures are given by the bail industry, charged PPI, adding this industry profits from pretrial detention; bail bondsmen prioritize guaranteeing that people are put in positions where they must rely on the bondsman to escape pretrial detention. In instances where the bond is forfeited, the bondsmen use legal loopholes to avoid paying the full sum.
The bail industry prevents bail reform by shaping the cultural narrative surrounding pretrial detainees, PPI said, and have transformed the detainee from a person into a violent criminal.
In reality, most people who fail to appear have been accused of low-level crimes, and up to 25 percent of these cases are dismissed, the PPI study shows. In felony cases, a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found one in four cases are dismissed.
This implies, said PPI, these people should never have entered the criminal system in the beginning. Failing to appear can even result in these people receiving jail time in instances when they never should have. A report from the North Carolina Court Appearance Project found that failing to appear was the most common reason people charged with misdemeanors were jailed.
The actual profile of the person who fails to appear in court is a far cry from what is often depicted, insists PPI, noting 87 percent of people who failed to appear were accused of nonviolent offenses, as opposed to the 13 percent with violent charges.
And, people miss court, not because they disdain the charges brought against them, but because of conflicting responsibilities, being unable to take time off work, issues in attaining transportation, childcare, and prior negative experience with the criminal system.
Recurring absences in court also are not as much of an issue as believed, PPI maintains, quoting one study that found that, in the case of felony charges in which someone was released without the aid of a bondsman, 25 percent of people missed a court date, but less than eight percent missed a second date.
What has been shown to be effective in lowering the instances of a missed court date has been providing support for the accused, PPI said, explaining a pilot program in California sent text messages to 422,151 accused to remind them of upcoming court dates. This resulted in a 6.8 percent decline in failures to appear in misdemeanor cases.
A report by the Bail Project corroborated this case. It found that, in cases in which the accused had the support they needed, 92 percent of people appeared in court.
However, the current punitive system makes pretrial detention more likely. This, in turn, supports the bail industry, providing them a ceaseless supply of clientele, added PPI.
Failing to appear generates a backlog of arrest warrants, which in turn can contribute to unsafe communities, PPI’s study found. And warrants can dangle over the heads of those they are issued for, which helps to build conditions in which turning to crime is a more viable option.
Professor Lauryn P. Gouldin explains the fear of an arrest warrant showing up on a job’s background check, or impacting someone’s ability to get their driver’s license, as well as the mental toll of having a warrant, can make it more likely for people to commit crime to survive.
These warrants, said PPI, are also disproportionately taken out against people of color. In Omaha, Nebraska, a city with just a 13 percent Black population, 40 percent of failure to appear warrants were against Black citizens.
There are some jurisdictions that consider the circumstances behind why someone may fail to appear, such as by providing grace periods, PPI noted, and said these provisions can be attributed to the organization of bail reformists and abolitionists.
In Illinois, organizations such as the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice and Coalition to End Money Bond passed reforms that only allow pretrial detention for those who present a risk of “willful flight.”
Other efforts by organizers include providing transportation, food, healthcare, and language support for those accused, said PPI, adding there are also efforts against specific policies, such as North Carolina’s double-bond policy, in which judges are forced to double a person’s bond if they miss court.