In school, and in court, showing up is half the battle. So when statistics revealed that 60 percent of juveniles charged in Baltimore County were missing their court dates, officials decided they needed something to help make sure the youngsters showed up.
The result was the Notification Caller Project, an effort in which a court staffer simply calls juveniles several days before their court dates to remind them — and their parents — of the need to appear.
Officials say the nudge works. Since it began several years ago, figures have turned around — now more than 70 percent of juveniles make their court date.
"This is just such a simple thing that is so low cost, but has such large effects," said Lisa Wyckoff, the county's Disproportionate Minority Contact Program manager, who helped create the program.
"We get, as adults, reminders about doctor's appointments" so why shouldn't kids be reminded of upcoming court dates, she said.
Officials say the program helps prevent wasted time of the judges, attorneys and witnesses, as well as time of police and sheriff's office personnel who have to serve warrants.
Fewer missed court dates also means fewer juveniles being detained. Officials said prior to the program, 30 percent of detained juveniles were being held because of their failure to appear in court for a scheduled date. As a result, when police or a sheriff's deputy went to retrieve them, youths charged with even the most minor offenses were held several hours, over night or even over the weekend until a judge could see them. Now, court officials say those failures to appear make up just 12 percent of detained juveniles.
"It sort of reversed the statistic," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen G. Cox of the notification program. "It's beneficial in a lot of ways. You're preventing kids from being held unnecessarily in the detention center."
The program is only for juvenile offenders; adults in Baltimore County don't receive the same reminder.
County officials say the problem of youngsters not showing up for court isn't isolated in Baltimore County, and can be for various reasons.
"It's true in a lot of places. Notices get sent out, people move, or people forget it," Cox said.
Sometimes the reason for not showing up might be simple miscommunication. Jerome J. Blake, supervising attorney for the Juvenile Division of the Office of the District Public Defender in Baltimore County, said it it's not uncommon for people to move or get new addresses, and fail to notify the court.
"Sometimes, it was maybe that the parents had forgotten," he said. "This has been great in notifying the parents."
"It's one thing if an adult fails to appear for their court date, the consequences fall on them," Cox said. But in some cases, she said, juveniles failure to appear because an adult hasn't made arrangements. In those cases, she said, it's the youngster who must face the penalties.
Eric Solomon, a spokesman with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said the Baltimore County notification model might soon be exported to other jurisdictions. "We are looking into replicating this strategy in Baltimore City in the future," he said in an email.
Some other jurisdictions actually already report lower failure to appear rates — only about one in 10 Prince George's County youth on any given day are held for failures to appear, and only about 2 percent in Baltimore, based on recent reports in those jurisdictions, Solomon said. But Wyckoff said those lower trends could be a result of differences in data collection. She said many of the Baltimore County youths who failed to appear in court also face additional offenses, but were still counted among the failure to appear rates in the county.
Baltimore County's program initially grew out efforts to reduce aspects of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system, as figures showed African-American juveniles had a higher rate of failure to appear instances. But the program has shown to be equally effective among both white and black youth, data has found.
Information about the attempts made to reach youngsters and their families is also provided to the judge, Wyckoff said.
The Notification Caller Project does not have a permanent source of funding, but is paid for by a $40,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
Making the system automated has been considered, Wyckoff said, but it's considered more effective to have live conversation with someone.
"Every year we struggle with finding the funding mechanism with it. I can understand that at first blush, 'why spend the money?'" Cox said. But she said the trauma to youngsters being detained, as well as the cost to taxpayers, make the program worthwhile.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger agreed. "It's a good thing," he said. "We want people in court. When it's a trial date, we've brought witnesses in, then we can't resolve the case. It's always helpful for us for the defendant to show up."