Court Accessibility Reform Didn’t Pass in 2023 Session but Research Stands

Accessibility continues to be a major barrier to court appearance for resources scarce communities, landing people in local jails and depleting resources. 

In partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, three counties in North Carolina brought together a group of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, and members of law enforcement to study the major reasons individuals do not appear in court and to propose solutions. According to the Pew article, two of the three counties, with data readily available, found that, “more people were booked into jail for failing to appear than for any other reason—even more than driving while intoxicated and simple assault.”

In addition to the consequences for individuals, no-shows are a significant drain on law enforcement and court resources in processing and fulfilling the outcome, such as issuing a warrant and then detaining and booking the individual, providing services during detainment, and the like for what is quite often a minor vehicle infraction.

From the article:

In fact, all but one of the top 10 offenses most likely to result in a missed court date were related to driving infractions: Seven were for minor administrative driving offenses such as expired tags and registration, as opposed to reckless endangerment, driving under the influence, or other more serious moving violations.

When it came to no-show reasons, transportation, family obligations, or simply forgetting to appear were identified as barriers. While these are reasonable enough challenges to understand, missing court has serious consequences for individuals, including but not limited to arrest, fees, suspension of a license, and lost wages. These effects further compound the problems resource scarce individuals already face.

The policy solutions that were devised in the North Carolina study covered a number of areas. Of the five areas identified, was a dual-pronged approach of increasing awareness of penalties while also reducing some of the severity certain consequences carry. Another major element that stood out was tools to encourage and enhance access to appearance, such as transportation assistance and virtual hearing options.

Of two bills MACo tracked on this subject for the 2023 legislative session, neither managed to pass, let alone move at all. The Conduit Street blog covered both SB 43 and HB 133, in which the position adopted for both was to support with amendments. The former focused mainly on transparency while the other focused on both access and transparency. MACo testimony expounded whole-heartedly on the merits of both, but requested the technological upgrades required in both bills be subject to the availability of funding in the state budget. The General Assembly knows almost better than anyone at the moment, the monumental task it is to retro-fit historic buildings with state-of-the-art technology – what is a multi-million dollar lift per jurisdiction. While the MACo amendment was accepted by bill sponsors for HB 133 the legislation ultimately stayed in committee.

These types of up-stream solutions, the kind that can address a problem before it snowballs, were not the only bills looking to mitigate some of the challenges individuals face around the most common launch points into the court system. HB 1029 also did not move out of committee but had a unique proposal for law enforcement agencies to provide vouchers to individuals who have been pulled over for simple car repairs. The vouchers could be redeemed for the required work at participating repair shops.

MACo will continue to encourage a balanced approach to these advancements and look for fiscal and philosophical partnership with the state, provided we are fortunate enough to embark on implementation. Keeping individuals out of the court system wherever possible is an effort of great merit. MACo will look to work with bill sponsors and stakeholders to craft a balanced approach in the 2024 session.

Read full article from The Pew Charitable Trusts.