We are always working with partners to ask hard questions about the justice system and develop new ideas for evaluations. Below are some of the questions and designs in our current pipeline:
The Problem: Direct evidence establishes that the existence of a criminal record, even a record devoid of convictions, constitutes an impediment to stable housing and employment. Public and private employers and landlords deny opportunities to justice-involved individuals. They deny opportunities overtly, and all of these denials are legal. Some are even compelled by law.
The Questions: Does criminal record expungement induce stabilization of housing and employment with concomitant reductions in recidivism? Should oversubscribed legal services providers dedicate their scarce resources to meeting the vast demand for assistance in obtaining expungements under state law?
The Study: A proposed two-site randomized control trial would assign individuals eligible for expungement under state law to different levels of service (self-help materials or attorney representation) from oversubscribed legal services providers. If, as anticipated, expungement outcomes differ based on service level, the study will employ an instrumental variables design to infer the effect of expungement on recidivism, housing stability, and employment.
What We’ll Learn: There is no clear evidence of the effect of record-clearing on recidivism. Further, there are no studies that show the effectiveness of record-clearing on housing stability outcomes. This study will show those effects.
Felony Diversion Project for Emerging Adults
The Problem: The justice system is ill equipped to provide developmentally appropriate responses to criminal conduct by young adults (aged 17-24). This constituency faces chronic un- and underemployment, homelessness and housing insecurity, and other challenges. Despite the need, support services are often either uncoordinated or unavailable completely. The 80% re-arrest rate among young adults is higher than in any other age cohort.
The Questions: Does a community-based social services program reduce recidivism rates and improve other reentry-associated outcomes for felony arrestee young adults? How much new criminal activity is prevented?
The Study: Field partners have designed a court-based re-entry system that provides a front-end release option for emerging adults after they are booked into the county jail. Consenting young adults arrested for low-level felonies will be randomized to receive either standard criminal justice adjudication or an offer to enter a services program. Study participants will be followed for two years after randomization to assess recidivism as well as measures of housing, employment, education, and health.
What We’ll Learn: The comprehensive nature of the program will allow for data on a broad range of criminal justice and quality of life measures.
Legal Services for Domestic Violence Survivors
The Problem: Victims of domestic violence/sexual assault (DV/SA) experience the highest incidence of ancillary civil legal needs: on average, about eighteen per person in one state [this is crucial because the estimate isn’t nationwide, only from Washington State]. Yet the standard of care for civil legal assistance in the DV/SA context lags behind support for criminal prosecution. Compounding the problem is a severe lack of legal services in high-volume matters such as eviction and small-claims suits. The general expectation, therefore, is that DV/SA survivors will navigate the court system alone.
The Questions: Does supporting DV/SA survivors in accessing available civil legal resources improve social outcomes and/or reduce revictimization? If so, could that model be replicated in other jurisdictions? This high-need, vulnerable population is difficult to study; they also have complex needs that demand the best possible allocation of limited resources. Can service providers employ research tools that indicate what really works?
The Study: The A2J Lab has designed an evaluation to determine the impact of a unique resources referral program that assigns a legal navigator to assess survivors’ needs holistically and match them with appropriate resources. Participants will be randomized to one of two conditions: (1) automatic referral to the program; or (2) referral to other services, including direct referral to legal aid providers without the assistance of the program. The program will use a new survey tool to follow up directly with participants.
What We’ll Learn: The study will provide policymakers with concrete data about whether or not the program works and thus whether it is advisable to replicate (and continue to evaluate) the model elsewhere. In addition, by using new digital tools to survey DV/SA survivors, the evaluation will generate valuable data about whether or not online and text-based survey tools are effective ways to communicate with this vulnerable population.
Effectiveness of Plain-Language Court Forms
The Problem: Over the last several decades, an increasing number of people come to court without a lawyer. Those who focus on self-help support hypothesize that court form simplification leads to properly prepared forms and in turn provides benefits to litigants, court staff, judges and attorneys. However, plain language is a nascent discipline and credible research in the area of plain language legal forms and instructions is thin.
The Question: Do plain language court forms facilitate better legal outcomes for pro se litigants than existing forms?
The Study: For approximately 6 months, any individuals attempting to access divorce court forms available online for pro se litigants will be randomly assigned to one of two different types of forms: the existing form or the “plain language” form. Following random assignment, a user will be free to proceed with his or her case however he or she chooses, including seeking assistance from self-help centers or hiring a lawyer to assist.
What We’ll Learn: This evaluation will give concrete evidence about what if any impact access to plain language forms has. Increasing the body of evidence about its efficacy will help courts decide how to deploy their resources.
AmeriCorps in Legal Aid
The Problem: Despite the growth of programs integrating non-lawyers in legal services to help expand limited resources, there is little to no rigorous empirical information regarding their effectiveness in narrowing the justice gap.
The Question: Does utilizing AmeriCorps members to support legal aid services improve outcomes for clients relative to self-help materials?
The Study: Individuals who contact the legal services provider requesting assistance with an eligible issue will be entered into a lottery to receive either self-help materials or to receive self-materials plus assistance from an AmeriCorps member. After a participant has received services, whether materials or materials plus help from an AmeriCorps member, the study team will follow up with both the participant and with the courts to determine how successful the participant has been in addressing their legal problem. Specifically, we are interested in knowing if and in what cases assistance from AmeriCorps members facilitates better legal and family outcomes.
What We’ll Learn: Knowing the impact of AmeriCorps members will allow the legal service provider to allocate resources more effectively. Such a study will also inform other jurisdictions looking to implement such non-lawyer projects.
Social Work in Public Defense
The Problem: Since the formation of public defender offices, defense attorneys have sometimes incorporated social workers into the criminal defense team. More recently, some social worker involvement has extended to the provision of services that go beyond the clients’ legal needs. A minority of states currently make use of this holistic defense approach, and some are working to expand their use of social workers. Other states are considering whether to adopt a holistic defense approach that incorporates social workers. But there is no empirical data to demonstrate that incorporating social workers into the criminal defense setting improves either criminal justice outcomes or improves defendant quality of life.
The Question: Does integrating social work services into the public defense team reduce recidivism and improve other outcomes for defendants?
The Study: Working with Sarah Buchanan, Director of Social Services at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, the A2J Lab has designed a four-site randomized evaluation to be implemented in multiple jurisdictions in Tennessee. The RCT will investigate whether outcomes with a social worker as part of the criminal defense team are different from those where defendants are invited to take advantage of social workers in their communities.
What We’ll Learn: The RCT design will discover how effective incorporating a social worker into the criminal defense team is at decreasing recidivism as well as housing insecurity, unemployment, and other risk factors for future criminal behavior.