The Realities of Failure to Appear Charges

How many times have you arrived at law school only to realize that you’ve forgotten your case book at home? Or made it all the way back from the grocery store after navigating through mid-afternoon traffic and found that the milk you were supposed to buy wasn’t amongst the other groceries? Everyone has moments of forgetfulness and, while most memory lapses don’t cause irreparable damage, some people face court fines and jail time for forgetting. These consequences are the result of failure to appear charges that are easily handed down and often doled out in abundant batches by courts every day for the array of individuals who don’t show up on their designated court dates.

In Durham County, North Carolina eighty-two of the four hundred and fifty-nine people being held in the county detention facility had failure to appear charges and ten of those had no listed charge other than Failure to Appear. In order to try and prevent these charges from accumulating and burdening the already overburdened justice system, the county has developed a new Automated Notification System. The electronic system generates text messages and phone calls designed to remind people of their upcoming court dates. This project is funded through the Safety and Justice Challenge, a grant program hoping to reduce over-incarceration by funding innovative new criminal justice initiatives across the nation.

In addition to flooding the jails with additional people unnecessarily, Failure to Appear charges contribute to the criminalization of poverty that plagues the United States. Studies have shown that minorities and people with lower income are more likely to have bench warrants and to get their driver’s license revoked for Failure to Appear. The problem with Durham County’s solution is that it only targets one problem that causes people to fail to appear. While some may gain charges just because they forgot their court date, individuals in poverty often avoid their court dates because they do not have the money to pay fines or fees and are afraid that they will arrested because of this is they appear in court. Others cannot afford to take time off of work or are forced to bring their children along with them only to be turned away by courts who prohibit the children from the courtrooms.

While a text or a convenient phone call might be nice to remind someone that they need to show up to court, there are those who haven’t forgotten. There are those who live with their court date looming over them as a constant source of anxiety because they live their lives pay check to pay check and can’t pay the excessive fees the courts expect them to pay or request leave from work without risking their continued employment. They don’t forget. Instead, their thrown into an impossible situation and when they make the choice they believe is best, they’re slapped with a warrant and later thrown in overcrowded jails or stripped of their driver’s license.

The Advanced Notification System is an excellent project and it will help many people who need that extra reminder of when they need to appear in court, but it isn’t a solution that will solve the core problems of Failure to Appear charges. In reality, the system needs to evaluate the various ways it acts to punish impoverished citizens.

If counties wish to reduce the amount of people incarcerated in local jails, they must begin to reconstruct their justice system so that it aligns with the realities of lower income communities.

A convenient electronic system that sends out little reminders isn’t going to cut it.