Fixing Court Summons So Their Horrible Design Doesn’t Land People In Jail

If you get ticketed for a minor infraction this summer, maybe this new piece of paperwork will keep you from forgetting your court date.

Fixing Court Summons So Their Horrible Design Doesn’t Land People In Jail
Photo: Flickr user Chris Yarzab

For many New Yorkers, summer is the strange season of being ticketed and perhaps eventually even arrested for small mistakes, like littering, riding a bike on the sidewalk, or drinking publicly on your front stoop (which is only dubiously illegal in the first place). After all, these are supposed to be minor infractions punishable by modest fines. But because a police-issued summons is hard to read, the court date a forgettable couple months away, and going to court a huge hassle–especially for people with inflexible work schedules–nearly 40% of those ticketed fail to appear before a judge, resulting in a warrant being issued for their arrest.


Simply put, many of us take a big risk to avoid a much smaller headache because the bureaucracy itself looks like a giant punishment, says a new report from Ideas42, which specializes in creating little nudges that help change human behavior for social good. So a few months ago, Ideas42, in partnership with New York’s police department, mayors office, the New York City court system and University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, rolled out a new set of what project lead Jon Hayes calls “subtle behavioral cues” including a summons that’s supposedly easier to understand, and a court date reminder system to make the judicial process feel less cantankerous.

“Success here would mean fewer unnecessary arrest warrants issued, less strain on the court system, and most importantly less people ending up in jail—and potentially losing their job or a number of other cascading effects as a result—for low-level infractions,” adds Hayes, whose work was funded by Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which aims to reduce crime and increase public safety.

On the summons side, the old version of these tickets had a number of mind-numbing flaws. First, it wasn’t totally clear what police officers were handing suspected criminals. The generic summons title simply read, “Complaint/Information.” That’s now switched to “Criminal Court Appearance Ticket.” It was also tough to locate the court date and location. The new summons moves all that info to the top of the form. Cops simply fill in a bubble beside what jurisdiction that crime allegedly occurred in, and suspects can relate that to a clear directory of courthouse addresses below it. There is also a large disclaimer: **To avoid a warrant for your arrest, you must show up to court.**

You can see a comparison of the old ticket and new ticket below.

Here’s an annotated image showing what’s changed, including the addition of a box with plenty of open space, drawing your focus to a help site and phone number for those with more questions. (Rephrasing declarations as “you” statements, by the way, reinforces the idea that there will be personal consequences.)

To help folks remember their court date, the city is testing robocall or text service with different messages to see what spurs the most attendance. For those people who can’t always make court dates, they’re piloting a walk-in program in Manhattan North that allows suspects to arrive at any time starting a week ahead of their court date. The parts that succeed the best will be expanded throughout the city.


Either way, those found guilty can also skip another lengthy punishment: waiting at the post-conviction payment window. This summer, the courts system will finally let people pay online. Perhaps most importantly, the community can now monitor officer actions: Ideas42 will release program results this fall, and the police department should continue sharing their own data four times a year, including things like the racial breakdown of who is being written up, and for what reason in various neighborhoods. Then it’ll be possible for city leaders to spot trends, which could lead to things like community awareness campaigns to keep folks from enduring that (now hopefully smaller) judicial headache altogether. Ideally, cities would stop forcing people–who end up being, of course, mostly minorities–to go to court for small quality of life infractions. But in a world of poor urban policing policies, at least more cities might be inspired to rethink their confusing paper trails.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.