Making A2J an Evidence-Based Endeavor

Implications of Inconvenient Truths about A2J

justicescalesOn September 27, 2015, the United Nations adopted something called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, setting forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals intended to address world poverty.  The Goals apply to all countries.  Goal 16 focuses on, among other things, “providing access to justice for all.”  The White House’s Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (“LAIR”), an effort of the UDSOJ Office for Access to Justice, took a role in coordinating the federal government’s response on Goal 16.  The National Center for Access to Justice, newly moved to Fordham Law School, recently convened a “Civil Society Consultation” to provide public comment to LAIR, and the A2J Lab accepted the National Center’s invitation to contribute a comment.  Our comment focuses on making access to justice an evidence-based endeavor.  What do you think of what we wrote?  Here it is:

Fear and Loathing over Risk Assessments Part 2

How Should We Think about Racial Disparities?

In a previous post, I considered some of the less convincing critiques of pretrial and sentencing risk assessments that sound in the ecological fallacy. The fallacy argument mistakenly targets risk scores as applying only group inferences to individual case decision-making. The takeaway was straightforward. A comprehensive understanding of actuarial tools must include rigorous counterfactual thinking about a state of the world in which they aren’t available. In this follow-up, I discuss an even more serious claim: that actuarial tools might lead to unjustifiable racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes.

Why RCTs? Part 4

To Fitbit or Not to Fitbit- Does It Make a Difference?

Wearable Fitness Trackers may make us lose less weight

fitbitimageA blasphemous claim, perhaps, considering how attached we can be to these devices. How could you not lose weight clocking more and more steps each day? Don’t Fitbits and other similar trackers give a point and meaning to our exercise or daily routine? What did we do before this technology, which seems beneficial yet all of sudden life-encompassing? (David Sedaris lamented the death of his Fitbit, “Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?”)

Transaction Costs

 Transaction costs, or, What matters more: your brain or your wallet?

Image of John Lennon's mind. "Mind Games" by Derek Davalos.

Mind Games” by Derek Davalos / CC 3.0

What motivates people to settle their lawsuits once a case is open?

Courts across the United States are experimenting with different models to nudge parties toward resolving disputes short of trial. One model mandates that parties attend a “settlement day” prior to their scheduled trial date. Unlike other mandatory court-affiliated settlement, however, there is no prescribed mediation or conference before the judge or other judicial officer. The only difference between settling in court and settling out of court is just that: the court.

The economic theory of transaction costs posits that a variety of obstacles (e.g., time, finances, reputation) can impede mutually beneficial agreements. One of its main lessons is that two parties will always reach an agreement—regardless of who holds a legal right—when transaction costs are zero. In courts and other public policy decisions, the goal is often to minimize transaction costs to facilitate negotiation. By extension, under this line of thinking, raising transaction costs would make an agreement less likely.

The mandatory settlement day effectively represents one of those transaction costs to the parties, who are otherwise free to negotiate and settle without taking the time off work to travel to court and spend the day in the courthouse. This is particularly true in eviction cases, where both parties clearly are familiar with one another and at least one party quite literally knows where the other party lives.

Fear and Loathing over Risk Assessments Part 1

Or How We Should Be Thinking Counterfactually About Actuarial Tools

Nate Silver’s widely heralded site now tracks more than just presidential elections. He and his colleagues apply statistical modeling or reasoning to everything from the Emmys to ERAs. Just over a year ago, its contributors–in collaboration with the Marshall Project (which itself is funded by the A2J Lab’s sponsor, the Arnold Foundation)–released a feature on the use of pretrial and sentencing risk assessments. So, too, did investigative journalists at ProPublica.

Both pieces raised serious questions about the use of risk scoring mechanisms. Should officials base decisions about individual arrestees or convicted defendants on aggregate data from other cases? Is there any evidence that these tools are racially biased? Former Attorney General Eric Holder previously voiced those concerns, best captured in his statement: “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice. . . . [T]hey may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”…

Why RCTs? Part 3

Why Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)?

Pt. 3: Scared Straight

This is Part 3 in a series called “Why RCTs?” which explores experiences with and without the benefit of randomized study across disciplines. You’ve read about robot babies and hormone replacement therapy.  We now bring you an example from the criminal justice system that will show you the possible consequences of implementing programs without knowledge of their effectiveness- even when we have a good gut feeling of how those programs should work.

Why RCTs? Part 2

Why Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)?

Pt. 2: Hormone Replacement Therapy

This is Part 2 in a series called “Why RCTs?” which explores experiences with and without the benefit of randomized study across disciplines. In case you weren’t shocked enough by the robot babies account from last week, this blog post explores another catastrophic outcome, this time in the medical field. This time, the RCT produced results drastically different from those in prior observational studies, causing the medical community to reconsider long-held beliefs about the benefits of a treatment for cancer patients.

Assessing Pretrial Risk Assessment

Of Scores and Simulations

Evidence-based practices in criminal law proceedings are rapidly gaining traction. Some high-level officials and scholars have voiced concerns about their use in sentencing, as the empirical turn in judicial decision-making continues to gain momentum. A significant portion of the A2J Lab’s mission is to take the practice community’s concerns seriously and then rigorously evaluate solutions to procedural problems.

Why RCTs? Part 1

Why Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)?

Pt. 1: Robot Babies

Welcome! This is the first post in a series called “Why Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)?” which will explore experiences across disciplines. Here we explain how RCTs have often turned commonly accepted beliefs on their heads and reveal how rigorous testing is needed even when, and perhaps especially when, we assume to know the best practices in a field.