Guest Post: Another RCT Tackling Failure to Appear, Part II

Today’s guest post comes from two Harvard Ph.D. students in Public Policy and Economics, respectively, Helen Ho and Natalia Emanuel. Helen and Natalia are affiliates of the Lab and have been working on their own randomized control trial (“RCT”) focused on failures to appear (“FTAs”) for arraignments. This post is the second in a series describing their study.

As we wrote in our last post, we’re interested in situations in which defendants miss their court case, also known as failure to appear (FTA). We’re working with a court system on a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate interventions that encourage people to show up for their arraignment or resolve their case ahead of time (if their case allows it).

Court staff members developed two postcards that would inform individuals of their court date, their case number, and the address of the courthouse at which their hearing was scheduled. The postcards also let them know about the consequences of missing their court date and accommodations that the court offers, such as free interpreters and the ability to reschedule.

The postcards had similar information, but used different behavioral nudges and designs. The first postcard emphasized that most people resolve their cases successfully, which is a social nudge. The postcard was also signed by the presiding judge, adding an official but personal invitation to resolve their case. The second postcard emphasized that the court was willing to help defendants resolve their case efficiently.

We tested the two postcards in traffic, misdemeanor, and municipal violations courts. The postcards increased case resolution prior to the court date or showing up to court by 5 percentage points. This is the equivalent of lowering the FTA rate by the same amount.


Noticeably, in the court dealing with municipal ordinances–the one called General Sessions—the postcards did not cause a statistically significant improvement. However, if we break out the treatment effects by postcard, the first postcard improved case resolution by a bit less than 5 percentage points, a statistically significant effect. We did not have a large enough sample size to confidently detect differences in treatment effects between the postcards.

In our next phase, we are developing new interventions to further increase case resolution rates. To inform these interventions, we are conducting qualitative interviews with defendants about their experiences of receiving and resolving tickets. We hope to understand why people might miss their court dates and what the court could do to help them show up.

Spotlight: Fines and Fees

We at the Lab want to make sure that we are taking on research projects that address the needs of the access to justice field. So, occasionally we’ll post about some pressing A2J issues for which we think more rigorous research is really needed. We welcome your ideas on our thoughts below, of course. For many of these topics, we will be looking for field partners who may have an ideal site for such research. We may also be looking for other researchers with whom we might partner to conduct a study on the topic. If you’re interested in partnering with us on any of these spotlight topics, please let us know.

Last month, Jeff Sessions retracted an Obama-era Justice Department letter that encouraged courts to be wary of the impact of fines and fees on low-income populations. The Obama-era letter brings attention to concerns about the imposition of such monetary penalties, discussing real-world consequences that disproportionately impact poor defendants. These concerns are as follows: the widespread practice of requiring monetary payments for infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies typically does not involve an inquiry into the defendant’s income or ability to pay. Instead, the penalties are based solely on offense type. Such fixed payments are more punitive for poor than the wealthier defendants, as the same fine will present an increasingly larger burden as one moves lower on the income scale. For more information, see this response from Lisa Foster, former director of the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice, Access to Justice Lab Advisory Board member, and co-author of the original letter.

Specific examples of such monetary penalties help bring the reality of this into focus[1]:

  • Fine for a misdemeanor is typically about $1,000.
  • Application fee a defendant must pay to hire a public defender can be as high as $400
  • Jail booking fees range from $10-$100
  • Defendants can be made to pay fees upward of $200 for juries who hear their cases
  • Victims’ panel classes, where some defendants are mandated to hear about victims’ experiences and loss, can cost up to $75
  • Drug courts can and often do make people pay for their own assessment, treatment, and frequent drug testing.

For state-by-state information on fines and fees, see the results of a 2014 survey conducted by NPR, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Center for State Courts.

The stakes are high for the individuals in the system, the communities the justice system is meant to protect, and the financial survival of the court system itself. On the latter point, fines and fees can have significant revenue-generating capacity for resource-constrained court budgets. So, how do we structure a system to rehabilitate offenders, decrease recidivism, improve public safety, and stabilize criminal justice budgets? How do we balance all of these priorities, especially in a context in which we don’t actually know what the short and long-term outcomes are of these practices or their alternatives?

It may come as no surprise to our readers that we think that some rigorous research is needed in this arena. We need to know what, exactly, the consequences are to low-income individuals of these fines and fees. We need to know if alternative fee structures–perhaps set based at least in part on a person’s financial status–can effectively reduce recidivism and protect communities. We need to evaluate and understand alternative models, too. As noted in this recent New York Times op-ed, other scholars think the same.

The key is going to be ensuring that policymakers have the research they need to make informed changes. Are you administering a fines and fees-related program that you’d like to evaluate? Contact us to see if it might be a good candidate for a study.

[1] These statistics are replicated from a recent New York Times article, available here:


Guest Post: Evaluating Make It Right

Today’s guest post is authored by Katy Weinstein Miller, Chief of Programs & Initiatives at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

In 2013, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón launched a new approach to handling juvenile delinquency.  Rather than prosecute young people accused of certain felony offenses, the office began offering them the opportunity to participate in “restorative community conferencing” – a facilitated, community-based conversation with the person they harmed, leading to an agreed plan for addressing that harm.  This model, called Make It Right, is an important step for San Francisco and for the field of criminal justice.  At a time when our juvenile caseload is at historic lows but our racial and ethnic disparities are at historic highs, we need new ways to address crime, promote healing, and make our community safer.

The implementation of Make It Right presented an opportunity – and in DA Gascón’s, view, an obligation – to rigorously research the effectiveness of the program through a randomized control trial (RCT).  Our justice system has long operated based on precedent and gut instinct, with little attention to studying results.  While often at odds, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges have shared a reluctance to engage in research that impacts the way they handle their cases.  To be sure, this is understandable for professionals who have been trained to give each case, and each client, individualized consideration.

RCTs present heightened ethical concerns for justice system stakeholders, particularly for diversion programs.  Random assignment requires us to deny the opportunity for some young people, but not others, to avoid prosecution and potentially alter their life course.  Conversely, it denies some victims the established protections of the court system.  Both our defendants and those they have harmed are disproportionately vulnerable populations.  Our gut tells us that restorative models can yield better outcomes than traditional prosecution – for both the young person and the victim – but without research, we just don’t know if that’s true.  The fact that our system disproportionately impacts vulnerable individuals in high stakes situations should underscore, not undercut, the need to employ rigorous methods to determine what works.

While logistical challenges can often derail RCTs in the justice sector, Make It Right’s design makes it well-suited for random assignment.  Our Juvenile Unit Managing Attorney reviews all of San Francisco’s juvenile cases, promoting uniformity in charging decisions and clarity about Make It Right program eligibility.  Following a three-step process, she determines (1) whether the case is chargeable; (2) whether the presenting offense is eligible for the program; and (3) whether the youth is ineligible to participate due to certain factors (such as geographic limitations and prior record/current probation status).   All cases flagged as eligible for the program are forwarded to our Juvenile Division Office Manager, who uses a randomized block method to assign the case to either treatment or control groups.  In each block of 10 cases, 7 are assigned to treatment, and 3 to control.  If case is randomized into the treatment group, our Office Manager directly refers the case to our nonprofit partners, who offer the program to the young person and victim, and facilitate the restorative process.  If the case is randomized into the control group, the Office Manager prepares the charging documents for filing in court.  The randomization process has yielded an unexpected benefit: because our Managing Attorney can only refer cases that she is prepared to prosecute, it ensures that she is not using Make It Right to “widen the net” of young people involved in our justice system – which is often a negative effect of implementing diversion programs.

For us, the hardest part of the Make It Right RCT is waiting for the results.  Preliminary findings are strongly encouraging – but the small scale of Make It Right means it is taking time to yield statistically significant findings.  The patience required to conduct rigorous research stands in direct contrast to our sense of urgency to reform the justice system – but we know that the results of that research will enable all of us to make more meaningful, effective change.

The Make It Right program is a partnership of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, nonprofits Community Works West, Huckleberry Youth Programs, and research & innovation center Impact Justice.  The program is under evaluation by the California Policy Lab at the University of California’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

Welcome to the Lab’s newest members!

We hope that all of our U.S. readers enjoyed a break over Thanksgiving. As we mark the beginning of December, we’re thrilled to introduce you to two new staff members who joined us this fall.

Our new Associate Director of Research Innovations, April Faith-Slaker, joins us after serving in a variety of access to justice positions, most recently as the Director of the Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives at the American Bar Association. April is working with current and potential new partners across the country to develop RCTs on a variety of access to justice topics. If you’ve been considering designing an RCT for one of your programs, please let her know. She’d love to connect with you.

Sandy North, the Lab’s Associate Director for Administration, is responsible for a variety of projects, including, usually, the blog! If there’s a story you’d like to share or any feedback you’d like to offer, she’d love to hear from you.

We’re excited to have the Lab grow as we seek to fulfill our mission, and we look forward to sharing updates on the work of all of our staff in the coming months!