The findings of this report underscore the need for Maine to adopt a court notification program, which would reduce Failure to Appear rates in Maine's courts, ease the number of people incarcerated unnecessarily in our jails, and save the state valuable resources that could be reinvested elsewhere.
The problem is a significant one: more than 20 percent of all pretrial detainees in Maine are in jail because of Failure to Appear (FTA) and no other crime. That amounts to more than 9,000 individuals being held in Maine jails every year for no other reason than missing their court date.
The cost of policing and punishing FTA is a significant drain on court, jail, and law enforcement resources. Maine jails spend $1.8 million annually housing pretrial detainees charged with FTA, and issuing warrants and scheduling hearings for FTA is a substantial drain on court and clerk time. And FTA can be devastating for defendants, who risk losing their jobs, their homes, and even custody of their children as a result of pretrial incarceration.
Studies show that most people who miss court do so because of forgetfulness, work obligations, illness, or other logistical obstacles. Therefore, rather than punishment, we need a commonsense solution that addresses the root causes of the problem. Research has consistently proven that the most effective way to reduce the FTA rate is through phone-based court notification programs, which remind defendants of the date, time, and location of their court date. These are similar to the text reminders that many of us currently receive about upcoming doctor or dentist appointments.
Several states – including Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington – have created court notification programs that work, are cost-effective, and do not undermine the other goals of the criminal justice system. These are proven successful models from which we can learn a lot. Every published study of these court notification programs reports success in reducing FTA. Most of these programs reduced the FTA rate by more than 50 percent within the first six months.
These court notification programs also consistently lead to major financial savings. The court notification program in Coconino County, Arizona produced $90,000 in increased revenue to the court and $60,000 to the jails in its first year of operation. In Multnomah County, Oregon, the court notification initiative was estimated to have saved $500,000 in its first year, in which it was used with only a limited pool of defendants. The program was expanded to include more defendants, and by the third year it saved the county approximately $1.6 million.
Court notification programs are not just for big cities or wealthy suburbs. They work extremely well in places like Maine. For example, the court notification program in Coconino County, Arizona – whose population is smaller than those of Cumberland, Penobscot, or York counties, and which contains significant rural and poor areas – helped reduce the FTA rate by 52 percent in just three months.
Every day, 25 people in Maine are incarcerated for FTA and no other reason. These are not hardened criminals trying to evade justice; they are mostly busy, overburdened parents and workers who – in the many weeks between their summons and their court date – simply forget. The costs of pretrial detention are high, both to our jails and our communities, as we separate parents from children and take workers away from their jobs. But FTA is not an intractable, unsolvable problem. There are excellent, proven models from around the country of court notification programs that reduce FTA rates by at least 50 percent. The cost of these programs is minimal, and they produce enormous savings for the courts, jails, and police.