An Exploratory Assessment of Race and Gender-Specific Predictors of Failure to Appear in Court Among Defendants Released via a Pretrial Services Agency

Published date01 December 2015
Date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
CJR583350 417..430 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2015, Vol. 40(4) 417-430
An Exploratory Assessment
ª 2015 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
of Race and Gender-Specific
DOI: 10.1177/0734016815583350
Predictors of Failure to
Appear in Court Among
Defendants Released via a
Pretrial Services Agency
Haley R. Zettler1 and Robert G. Morris1
Failure to appear (FTA) in court is an understudied and ubiquitous problem throughout the justice
system and spans across all forms of pretrial release, whether financially or nonfinancially secured.
Most offenders are released prior to the disposition of their case and many via government-funded
pretrial services agencies. Few studies, however, have explored the factors associated with court
appearance specific to race and gender groups. Relying on data culled from Dallas County, Texas,
the present study assessed the predictors of FTA for defendants released via the county’s pretrial
services agency and across various strata, including race and gender. Results of this exploratory
analysis suggest that pretrial services defendants reporting indigence were more likely to fail to
appear for all demographic groups, and felony defendants tended to appear at higher rates for most
groups. Other predictors associated with failure to appear varied across gender and race including
celerity, criminal history, marital status, and length of criminal involvement.
court, courts/law, community-based corrections, corrections, community corrections
The release of defendants prior to the disposition to their case is a crucial step in the criminal justice
process yet it is often overlooked by criminal justice scholars (Demuth & Steffensmeier, 2004; Fen-
nessy & Huss, 2013). Furthermore, most defendants are released from jails prior to their criminal
sentence (Cohen & Reaves, 2007). All pretrial release protocols share the goal of ensuring that the
defendant returns to court to be held accountable, or not, to a set of criminal charges. Whether a
1 University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Haley R. Zettler, University of Texas at Dallas, Criminology Program, 800 West Campbell Rd., Richardson, TX 75080, USA.

Criminal Justice Review 40(4)
defendant secures a financial bond, is released on his or her own recognizance, or is monitored by
pretrial services, many do not return to court. Unfortunately, failure to appear (FTA) is a problem
replete throughout the justice system and affects all forms of pretrial release (Cohen & Reaves,
2007; Reaves & Perez, 1992). Reaves and Perez (1992) found that of those defendants that were
released, one-third were rearrested for a new offense, FTA in court as scheduled, or committed some
other violation. FTA negatively impacts the operating efficiency of the court system, pretrial service
agencies, and commercial bond agencies. FTA results in both time and money lost by courts and is a
potential threat to public safety. Since FTA is a significant problem that affects all release mechan-
isms, it is important to consider what factors contribute to FTA.
Although prior research has investigated the effects associated with various predictors of FTA
and have concluded that demographic factors may be predictive of FTA (Clarke, Freeman, & Koch,
1976; Cohen & Reaves, 2007; Fennessy & Huss, 2013; Goodman, 1992; Siddiqi, 1999), there has
yet to be an empirical assessment comparing the characteristics of FTA between these demographic
groups. If there are predictors of FTA that seem to be more salient for a specific race or gender,
it will benefit pretrial services agencies when making release decisions and managing their
Literature Review
Pretrial Services and FTA
Pretrial services agencies often utilize risk assessment instruments to assess which defendants can
reasonably be expected to appear for future court dates and those who cannot (Gottfredson,
1974). Several studies have found that risk assessment instruments have identified significant rela-
tionships between supervision level and likelihood of pretrial risk and FTA (Austin, Ocker, & Bhati,
2010; Hedlund, Cox, & Wichrowski, 2003; Lowenkamp, Lemke, & Latessa, 2008; VanNostrand,
2003; VanNostrand & Keebler, 2009). Cadigan and Lowenkamp (2011) concluded that the imple-
mentation of a risk assessment instrument in the federal system led to an increase in defendants
released prior to the disposition of their case. Cadigan, Johnson, and Lowenkamp (2012) validated
the federal risk assessment instrument and found that the instrument performed well in predictive
ability. VanNostrand and Lowenkamp (2013) found that the use of a pretrial risk assessment tool
even without a defendant interview was predictive of FTA. A meta-analysis by Bechtel, Lowen-
kamp, and Holsinger (2011) concluded that pretrial risk assessment classifications were significantly
correlated with pretrial failure outcomes, whereas those defendants classified as high risk posed the
highest risk of pretrial failure and FTA.
Predictors of FTA
Prior research has examined risk factors that are associated with FTA. Studies have found that defen-
dants having a history of FTA were more likely to fail to appear for their current charge (Cohen &
Reaves, 2007; Goodman, 1992; Reaves & Perez, 1992). Other studies have examined defendant
demographic factors, concluding that gender, race, offense type, prior criminal history, living con-
ditions, expecting someone at arraignment, warrant status, and employment are all relevant in pre-
dicting the likelihood of FTA (Cohen & Reaves, 2007; Goodman, 1992; Maxwell, 1999; Siddiqi,
1999; Visher & Linster, 1990). Strong in methodological rigor, a recent meta-analysis concluded
that age, FTA history, risk assessment instrument, juvenile arrests, prior conviction, prior jail, prop-
erty or drug offenses, and victim injury were significantly related to FTA (Bechtel, Lowenkamp, &
Holsinger, 2011). Considering the evidence that some factors are more predictive of FTA, it is nec-
essary that pretrial officers and judges should consider this information when making release

Zettler and Morris
decisions. Further, it is important for individual jurisdictions to assess the factors associated with
FTA for their pretrial services defendants.
Demographic Factors and FTA
Several studies have concluded that demographic factors are associated with the likelihood of FTA.
Maxwell (1999) examined one pretrial reporting program and found that female, Black, and Hispa-
nic defendants were more likely to FTA. Another study examining defendants released prior to their
case disposition found that female and Black defendants were more likely to FTA in their sample
(Siddiqi, 1999). A more comprehensive study including defendants released pretrial for felonies
between 1990 and 2004 found that Black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to FTA than
their White counterparts (Cohen & Reaves, 2007). Likewise, Fennessy and Huss (2013) examined
federal pretrial services defendants in a single district and found that Black defendants were signif-
icantly more likely than Whites to FTA. However, there has been at least one study that did not find
race or gender to be predictive of FTA (Clarke et al., 1976).
While the prior literature has found race and gender to be important predictors of FTA (Clarke
et al., 1976; Cohen & Reaves, 2007; Fennessy & Huss, 2013; Goodman, 1992; Siddiqi, 1999), there
has not been a comparison of predictors of FTA between these demographic groups. It is possible
that predictors of FTA may be different for males and females as well as for different racial groups.
The current study is exploratory and adds to the literature by drawing comparisons of predictors of
FTA between various demographic groups. Specifically, the study examines the following research
questions: (1) considering gender as a predictor of FTA, do males and females have similar predic-
tors of FTA? (2) considering race as a predictor of FTA, do White, Black, and Hispanic defendants
have similar predictors of FTA? The current study stratifies these data by race and gender in order to
explore these research questions.
Archival data were obtained from official records collected by the Dallas County criminal justice
system and the Texas Department of Public Safety. These data contain information on individual
defendants, their criminal histories, and their history at every intersection with the County justice
system (i.e., court dates, etc.). Data were limited to all defendants who were booked into the Dallas
County jail during 2008 for a crime or crimes that they had not been previously arrested or jailed and
who were released prior to the disposition of their case through the county’s pretrial services agency.
Defendants released through pretrial services in Dallas County tend to be released at no, or minimal
(US$20 fee), cost to the defendant. Pretrial services is then responsible for ensuring that the defen-
dant appears in court. In the current study, pretrial services release was often, but not always, used
for defendants who did not have access to financial means to release another form of release and who
were not charged with one of several ‘‘serious’’ offenses—discussed subsequently.
Eligibility requirements for pretrial release are determined by reviewing the inmates who were
booked in jail the previous business day and did not secure release via financial means (e.g., a cash,
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