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How Irving is getting people to show up to resolve their traffic tickets

Courts can’t work if people have so little respect for them they don’t even bother to show up or if the courts are so inflexible that they can’t accommodate people with genuine conflicts. But that’s what happens in a surprising number of municipal courts in this state.

We think it’s a big deal. The tickets being adjudicated in those courts are about law enforcement — even if they represent the most minor offenses. That’s why we applaud Irving for figuring out a smart, data-driven plan to get people to court.

Irving is listed among 23 U.S. cities recognized this year by Bloomberg Philanthropies for their use of data to improve government transparency and public services. The charity bestows the honor through its What Works Cities certification program, whose mission is to help local governments capitalize on “what works” to make a city more effective.

Irving achieved silver certification in part because of its efforts to lower its failure-to-appear rate for Class C misdemeanors. These are traffic tickets, city ordinance violations and public intoxication cases — low-level offenses that are adjudicated in municipal court. While these cases don’t send people to the county jail, missing a scheduled hearing in municipal court leads to additional fines and further blemishes a defendant’s criminal record.

We shouldn’t assume the worst of defendants who fail to show up to court. Sometimes people forget they have a hearing or can’t secure a day off from work or a babysitter. Meanwhile, cities have to deal with additional paperwork when people skip their court dates. In 2018, Irving’s monthly average failure-to-appear rate was 28%, according to a Bloomberg Philanthropies article.

By early 2021, Irving reported that it had sunk that number below 1%. Voluntary virtual hearings brought about by the pandemic played “a major role” in the reduction, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies, but Irving was recognized for actively pursuing other strategies to lower the failure-to-appear rate.

One strategy was simple on its face: call people to remind them about an upcoming court date. Irving assigned staff to call defendants weeks ahead of their court dates to add a human touch to what can be an intimidating situation. But that wasn’t all. The city also partnered with a behavioral science firm to craft scripts for the call and to keep them friendly and to the point.

To test the efficacy of the scripts, Irving tracked data on which messages brought more people to court. According to Bloomberg Philanthropies, the city also worked with prosecutors to make plea offers over the phone, sometimes obviating the need for court hearings.

The Dallas County Public Defender’s Office has also embraced personalized messages to get more people to make their court dates. Last summer, the office partnered with Uptrust, a criminal justice-focused communication platform, to send texts to clients from their assigned public defender. Statistics about how this partnership has affected failure-to-appear rates weren’t immediately available, but the initiative seems promising. In May, the Dallas County Commissioners Court approved a request from the Public Defender’s Office to renew the partnership for another year.

We salute Irving for trying to make the criminal justice system a smoother ride for the people it serves. We need more data-driven efforts to improve government services across the board.


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