Courts July 31, 2023

Understanding and Reframing an Individual’s Failure to Appear in Court

Shannon Magnuson, Senior Associate, Justice System Partners

Failure to appear in court is often a disproportionate driver of jail populations. It is important to understand it better and to reframe it, as part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC)—which is reducing jail populations across America. Justice System Partners (JSP), a technical assistance provider to the Safety and Justice Challenge, recently conducted an in-depth study about why people do not get to court as scheduled in Lake County, Illinois. Leadership there know even one night in jail can be disastrous for some people. It can lead to a host of negative consequences including loss of employment. But they saw bench warrants for missing court were also driving their jail population at a disparate rate. That is why they wanted to know more about why people miss court.

From Taxi to Takeoff: Planning and Implementing Early Diversion in Los Angeles

By: Chidinma Ume, Darcy Hauslik

Courts Diversion Jail Populations June 15, 2023

The last several years have ushered in a seismic shift to Los Angeles County’s criminal justice landscape. Home to the world’s largest jail system, LA County achieved an unprecedented 25 percent decline in its jail population–the largest in the nation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the overall number of people in jail decreased, the percentage of people of color and people with mental health needs behind bars in LA increased. This changing composition mirrored a national trend and illustrated a key lesson: without a parallel effort to promote racial equity and provide safe, community-based care for people who need it, reducing jail populations may actually worsen disparities.

To address this, LA County—a grantee in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge—announced a new vision of “Care First, Jails Last” and deepened its investment in community-based support for vulnerable populations and alternatives to incarceration. LA County also launched the Justice, Care, and Opportunities Department to consolidate most of these efforts under one roof.

As members of the Center for Justice Innovation (The Center) team, we are technical assistance partners in the Safety and Justice Challenge and worked with LA County to expand their alternatives to incarceration with particular emphasis on equity. Inspired by the learnings from this work—and grounded in our long history of launching and operating diversion programs—our West Coast Initiatives team authored a new report. The report offers concrete insights to inform the development of equitable diversion programming around the country. For practitioners seeking to create diversion programs, this document offers advice on designing early alternatives to incarceration, leveraging data to identify and connect with target populations, and working towards racially equitable outcomes.

We collaborated with LA County to launch two initiatives—the Rapid Diversion Program, which is court-based, and the Prefiling Diversion Program, which is based in law enforcement stations. Both programs aim to reduce the use of jail by connecting participants to safe, appropriate, and community-based care.

While successful diversion programs can safely reduce the use of incarceration, special care must be taken to ensure that these programs are carried out in an equitable way. We hope the insights of the report can provide guidance for developing diversion initiatives that bridge the gap between legal systems and communities while caring for vulnerable populations.

The first section of the report offers tips for developing the essential components of an early diversion program. Recommendations include:

  • Create infrastructure to divert people at the early stages of a case.
  • When determining eligibility criteria, prioritize the client profile over charges. When creating diversion programs, justice partners typically determine charge types to include and exclude in programs. Instead, we suggest program partners determine the profile of people they want to serve—for example, mental health, people with three or more arrests/system contacts, young people, race and ethnic groups that are disproportionately represented, etc.—and let that guide program development.
  • Make charge-based exclusions (sex offenses) presumptively instead of categorically ineligible. This means that instead of having categorical exclusions based on what people may be charged with, presume people are eligible for programs and, when someone is facing a presumptively ineligible charge, allow for discussion on a case-by-case basis.
  • Even within the same municipality, recognize that each diversion site may operate differently and have a distinct culture.
  • Seek out cross-sector collaborations and expertise in the program planning phase.

The opportunity to provide community-based care to people with unmet social service needs can happen at stages that far precede a criminal conviction—any time before a criminal case is adjudicated, and indeed, even before criminal charges are filed. For example, LA’s Prefiling and Rapid Diversion Programs utilize police stations and courts as potential off-ramps from the traditional legal system path.

Both programs pursue a common objective: to expand early interventions for people with unmet needs rather than continued detention or release without any supportive resources. To accomplish this, LA located behavioral health care professionals in the jails and courthouse. For Prefiling Diversion, this meant physically converting unused breathalyzer rooms and offices into spaces for care by placing service navigators in the station. Service navigators find programs and help people enroll in them and understand how to get connected to the program (i.e. when and where to go for intake, whom to call for questions). The Rapid Diversion Program embedded pairs of service navigators and clinicians in courthouses.

Four roles can improve the diversion infrastructure:

  • Mental Health Clinician—screens candidates for behavioral health conditions and appropriate level of services for the behavioral health program someone will need.
  • Service Navigator—identifies healthcare and social service needs, finds local programs and providers, and connects participants to these organizations and services.
  • Case Manager—supports participants one-on-one. Often the main point of contact for program participants, case managers provide referrals for continuing needs, such as education, employment resources, benefits, and housing, and help participants stay engaged in the program.
  • Driver—takes participants to their agreed upon destinations, oftentimes directly from the police station or courthouse to appointments, referred services, and future court dates. This is especially important for jurisdictions where transportation equity is a challenge. Although the driver’s primary role is to transport program participants, the driver frequently interacts with program participants and serves as an additional level of support.

Building these roles into any diversion program—and locating these professionals at the booking station or courthouse where possible—can help ensure that people with specialized knowledge connect participants to resources in a coordinated way. Interactions with program staff are also supportive touchpoints, which is made possible by hiring staff who understand the needs of participants and want to help. This includes people with lived experiences (including families impacted by the criminal justice system), previous program graduates, and people with clinical backgrounds. Remaining intentional about including and staffing each role, especially case managers and drivers who interact with participants frequently—can make even the mandatory components of diversion programs motivational.

The second section of the report includes recommendations for using data to promote equitable practices for diversion. The report stresses the need for prioritizing data collection as a critical tool in ensuring equity. Data analysis can help to identify underlying needs and shape the design process prior to program launch. After launch, a consistent flow of data among partners is necessary to sustain the program and gives planners the ability to adjust the program as needed.

Recommendations include:

  • Use relevant and detailed data at the planning stage to ensure equity and effectiveness of programming.
  • Review program performance data on an ongoing basis to ensure the right people are being served.
  • Make data planning a team effort.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities around data management.

When launching a program meant to achieve equity, program planners should learn how to meet the needs of the desired population. Instead of looking at the types of charges to divert, examine who is being charged and any trends that can inform the demographic to serve (e.g. people who are unhoused but arrested for quality of life offenses, or people arrested on a drug offense but who are excluded based on prior drug convictions). Having a better understanding of common issues—not just charges—that people face can radically shape programming.

In addition to using data on the front end of design, the report recommends reviewing program performance data on an ongoing basis to ensure program efficacy and equity. Recurring reviews should include program staff who can speak to participants’ growth in the programs, especially to help the program collaborators understand ways to improve and sustain the program so it continues to have its intended impact.

Many partners in Los Angeles County make the Prefiling and Rapid Diversion Programs possible, including the LA County’s Justice Care, and Opportunities Department,the Offices of the Los Angeles County Public Defender and Alternate Defender, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Mental Health, Project 180, and Exodus Recovery, Inc.


Courts Data Analysis Frequent Jail Users Incarceration Trends Probation Sanctions May 5, 2022

Trends in Jail Incarceration for Probation Violations

Rochisha Shukla, Ammar Khalid, Arielle Jackson

Urban Institute report on Trends in Jail Incarceration for Probation Violations

In partnership with the Adult Probation Department in Pima County, Arizona, and as part of broader research funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge to examine the impact on jail use of providing housing supports for people on probation in Pima County, the Urban Institute analyzed trends in jail incarceration for people with probation violations using datasets for overall jail bookings in the county from 2015 to 2020 and petitions-to-revoke for people on probation from 2016 to 2020. This case study summarizes our findings on patterns in overall jail bookings and petitions-to-revoke and, for the probation population in jail, analyzes average lengths of stay and patterns by race and ethnicity and sex.

A New “Tap In Center” Aims To Restore Community Trust

By: Miranda Gibson, Beth Huebner

Community Engagement Courts Diversion Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration Racial Disparities April 14, 2022

There is new hope in St. Louis County for people afraid to move on with their lives or engage with the criminal justice system because of unresolved warrants, municipal code violations, or having missed a court date.

The center, which is part of a national effort to lower jail populations in jurisdictions across the country as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), aids in responding to concerns raised by the Department of Justice (DOJ) about racial injustice related to municipal court practices in its 2015 investigation into the Ferguson Police Department—which is located in the northern part of St. Louis County.

The DOJ commissioned a report in the wake of the 2015 police killing of Michael Brown, which spawned a series of racial justice protests in Ferguson, attracting international attention. The report found that police practices were often unconstitutional and that municipal court practices imposed substantial barriers to the challenge or resolution of municipal code violations. The court also imposed “unduly harsh penalties for missed payments or appearances,” the report said. It also said the law enforcement practices in Ferguson were driven in part by racial bias and that they disproportionately harmed African American residents. So, it is evident that in St. Louis County any efforts to lower the jail population must go hand in hand with intentional efforts towards racial equity.

Minor legal issues are often part of the reason people “tap out” of trusting the criminal justice system. They stop people feeling proactively and collectively engaged with their community’s safety and security. But the new “Tap In Center” aims to rebuild trust between community members and the criminal justice system, with racial equity at its core. The goal is to help people to have a brief conversation and to help them re-engage with court cases and, more importantly, legal assistance.

Data helped with identifying the location for Tap In. It is taking place in the zip code where most African American people in the county’s jail system live. It is also located in a neighborhood that has historically been underserved in transit access, social services, and community supports. The center aims to take a humanitarian approach to the issues that people face when they must go to a court date every month, often for an extended period of time, until their case might be resolved.

The “Tap In Center” is more than just a place for people to resolve warrants. People can also meet with an attorney, learn their case status, apply for help from a public defender, or even access a cellphone. The center also connects people with other wrap-around services to help them with various challenges in their lives, from temporary housing to clothing to help with food.

Residents have spoken positively about their experience with the center, saying it allows them to continue their lives without fear of bench warrants or fear of arrest for this. Wakesha Cook told St. Louis Public Radio that after getting connected with a public defender and setting up a new court date, “I feel free.”

“When I first got to the center, I was a little nervous since I had this warrant on me, but when I started talking with the people, I was relieved,” said Earnest Holt, another person who visited the center, in an interview with the St. Louis American.

The Tap In Center is a community-based space in a public library. It’s located in a safe, neutral, calm, welcoming spot and is designed to remove barriers and worries that a person might have about going into a courthouse. It welcomes people who come in with warrant issues—people who have historically been wary about engaging with the justice system because they are afraid of, for example, serving jail time.

The center is the result of a partnership between the St. Louis County Library system, The Bail Project, the Missouri State Public Defender, and the St. Louis County Prosecutor, with support from the St. Louis County Courts 21st Judicial Circuit.

Criminal Justice reform strategies in St. Louis County go beyond the Tap In Center. They have focused on systemic case processing, including a population review team, enhanced pretrial reform, pretrial assessment, legal representation, and expedited probation handling. Each of the county’s reform strategies is meant to decrease the disproportionate burden that people of color face in the criminal justice system. St. Louis County is also advised by its own Ethnic and Racial Disparities committee, made up of criminal justice stakeholders, representatives from community advocacy groups, and individuals with lived experiences.

At the time of writing, St. Louis County had reduced the average daily population of its jail by 24% since joining the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2016. Nevertheless, racial disparities do persist. The average daily population of Black people in the jail has reduced by 15% from 2016 to 2021, according to the numbers, and the average daily population of White people has reduced by 41%. Length of stay has reduced for Black individuals who are seeing a 44% decline in the length of stay compared with 41% for White individuals. COVID has slowed progress because of court closures and other related delays. Now that things are reopening, the county is ready to continue its work.

The Tap In Center represents progress and provides motivation for the continued work to be done to address long-standing issues. We hope that other communities across the country will learn from the Tap In Center as they attempt to address their own racial equity issues and more.

New York, NY

Change in Jail Population 38%

Action Areas Bail Courts Data Analysis Diversion

Last Updated


In 2018, New York City had the lowest incarceration rate of any large city in the country. Despite the city’s success in reducing the overall jail population, certain fundamental inequalities persisted in the jail.

People of color were overrepresented in the jail. Black and Latinx people made up a little more than half of the city’s population yet comprised nearly 90% of the local jail population from 2013 – 2018.

While the number of people in custody with behavioral health needs was falling, it was falling more slowly compared to the overall number of people in custody. In 2018, 43 percent of individuals in New York City jails had behavioral health disorders.


Since joining the Safety and Justice Challenge, New York City has advanced a number of strategies to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system to make it more fair, just, and equitable for all.



The city updated the program model for supervised release and conducted trainings to inform the courts on the changes. The updates included expanding program eligibility to allow a younger population charged with serious offenses and expanding the range of charges that were eligible. State-wide bail reform legislation, which passed in 2019, required further expansion of the supervised release program to be made available to all individuals charged with a crime, at the discretion of the court.



Previously, incidents involving intimate partners were not permitted within the supervised release program. However, since bail reform legislation passed, and these individuals were now accepted by the program, a class specific to intimate partner violence (IPV) was developed and implemented to respond to the needs of this population. It encourages judges to allow defendants charged with IPV to participate in the supervised release program, as an alternative to jail.



The city has increased the use of alternatives to detention and incarceration for people in the jail. Specifically, the city expanded the uptake of diversion initiatives. To ensure people could be successfully diverted to these services, the city identified and addressed barriers to diversion in the arraignment process.



The city has also worked to provide enhanced information to judges in arraignments, which has included updating a release assessment tool that offers judges the likelihood that the individual will make all court appearances.



In light of criminal justice reforms, the city developed bail and discovery reform metrics. With the substantial changes made to state laws, these metrics can be used to track the implementation and progress of these reforms.


As a result of the strategies above, New York City has made progress towards its goal of rethinking and redesigning its criminal justice system. The jail population has been reduced while keeping the community safe.

Quartery ADP for New York (2016-2024)

38.4% from baseline

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Specifically, judges are using supervised release for a broader range of cases than they used to.

The city has built collaborations with other agencies, which has allowed the city to facilitate jail releases in response to COVID-19 while keeping the community safe and protecting public health.

Remaining Challenges

New York City is focused on addressing its remaining challenges in its local justice system.

With changes to the state-wide bail reform law, there is no longer a need to focus on expanding the supervised release programs. The challenge will now be to encourage judges to consider release for the more serious charges, for which bail still remains a legal option, and to continue to build out support services within the program.

The city has also been working to identify where racial and ethnic disparities occur in the justice system and will be working to address the issue going forward.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on every aspect of the city’s local justice system and continues to uniquely affect those incarcerated in local jails. The NYC jail population has seen a re-increase since the beginning of the pandemic, which requires a regular review of jail reduction approaches and their effectiveness.

The foundation of collaborative, data-driven strategies, including the necessary structures and collaboration from local stakeholders that are in place to support these strategies, has set the city up well to respond to the pandemic swiftly and effectively.

Lead Agency

NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

Contact Information

Miriam Popper


Office of Court Administration, New York City, Criminal Justice Agency, Center for Court Innovation, CASES

Follow @CrimJusticeNYC

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