Understanding and Improving Court Appearance Rates
The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project (SF Pretrial) is a nonprofit organization that has been providing supervised pretrial release services for over 45 years. Through a study funded by Arnold Ventures, RDA partnered with SF Pretrial to understand failures to appear in court among higher need individuals on supervised pretrial release in San Francisco.
This study utilized a mixed-methods approach to explore trends and factors associated with failure to appear outcomes among SF Pretrial clients released to Assertive Case Management (ACM). The study’s sample included 3,699 unique cases that were referred to ACM supervision between May 2016 and April 2020 and had at least one scheduled court hearing. Inferential analyses were used to identify the factors associated with failures to appear and qualitative data helped provide context and nuance regarding why these factors serve as barriers to appearing in court.
This study found that individuals with high needs, especially housing needs, were most likely to miss court hearings. Individuals with unstable housing (i.e., unsheltered or staying in a shelter) were nearly 1.5 times as likely to miss court hearings compared to individuals with transitional or stable housing. Medical needs and substance use, employment, childcare, and transportation issues were also identified by SF Pretrial clients, staff, and justice partners as impacting court appearance.
Additionally, warrants due to missed court appearances were usually issued within the first three months of pretrial supervision. Eighty percent of warrants due to missed court appearances were issued within the first and fifth court hearings, and 50% of warrants were issued when clients missed their first or second court hearing.
These findings reinforce the importance of shifting pretrial supervision practices from a compliance-driven model toward a more rehabilitative, human service-oriented model where voluntary services are frontloaded immediately upon clients’ release from custody. To improve pretrial appearances and effectively meet clients’ needs, dedicated resources must be available to connect clients with needed support services.
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