Staff Profile: Renee Danser

As my inaugural blog post, it seems most appropriate to give the blog world an opportunity to get to know me, what I’m working on, and what I hope to work on with my A2J Lab colleagues. So, we’ll reserve the deep and ponderous thinking for the next post.

My Niece calls me Nay Nay and Other Fun Facts

I come to the Lab with some very diverse experiences, but there is one common thread–improving access to justice through court initiatives. I was a court administrator in both an urban and a rural jurisdiction in Pennsylvania for the bulk of my career. During that time I focused on process improvement–helping to implement a self-help center, helping to modify case management processes to be user-focused, and helping to build relationships with stakeholders.

From there I transitioned to a broader and more national picture of the A2J space through my work at the Self-Represented Litigation Network (“SRLN”). In that role, I really focused on knowing the landscape of issues, proposed solutions, and innovations throughout the country. Considering that path, moving to the A2J Lab seems like a natural progression. But, regardless of what seems to make sense, I enjoy research. I like to learn new things, discover the “why,” and use that knowledge to continue to search for the best solutions.

You can follow all of my life loves by following me on Twitter @ReneeDanser. You’ll hear my thoughts, in brief, on access to justice, but also on dogs, the music that’s in my ear at the moment, occasional pictures of my family, and the WWE.

I’m already headlong into several exciting projects that center on the criminal justice system and how best to improve outcomes for those who find themselves justice-involved.

It’s All in the Outcomes

I’m working to help develop two studies: one that would evaluate whether expungement is a useful tool to successful reentry and one that would evaluate the impact of the Transformative Justice (“TJ”) Program developed by the Lone Star Justice Alliance (“LSJA”).

The expungement study, still in development, would be a multi-site study. One field partner is Kansas Legal Services; the whole state of Kansas will be part of the study. The other site is Western Pennsylvania. Our field partners at that site include Neighborhood Legal Services Association, the Duquesne University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.  Consenting study participants would be randomized into a treatment group of full scope legal representation or a control group of self-help materials to help them obtain an expungement. We would follow all study participants for approximately two years to understand whether they recidivate and whether they obtain and maintain stable housing and employment. From there we hope to have enough data to learn about the effect of expungement on successful reentry.

The evaluation of the TJ program is also a multi-site study within the state of Texas. Field partners include the LSJA and justice system stakeholders in Dallas and Williamson counties. The TJ program is a diversion program for justice-involved emerging adults ages 17 to 24 (in some instances 17 to 30), all individuals considered of the age of majority. The LSJA believes that this population is in need of community-based services, rather than incarceration, and will still benefit from restorative justice concepts that we commonly see in juvenile matters. This study endeavors to test that theory. Consenting study participants will be randomized into a treatment of the TJ Program or a control of the customary prosecutorial process. Again, we will follow all study participants to track recidivism and housing and employment stability as well as mental and physical health outcomes. We will answer the question: does the TJ Program reduce recidivism and improve the likelihood of successful reentry for this population?

All really important stuff, and I feel so honored to have the opportunity to work with these field partners and on these issues.

What’s on the Horizon?

If you know me, you know the hamster is always on the wheel in this head. I am always thinking through ways to improve our justice system (among other things of course). So what else do I hope to work on during my time at the Lab? Let’s start a list!

  1. Remote Appearance

Courts are still struggling with how best to allow remote appearance. From time to time, we encounter rules of court requiring an in-person appearance to request a remote appearance. When we stop and think about this, we can identify the inherent barrier this creates–if one needs a remote appearance, is it reasonable to ask them to appear to request it? I want to understand the barriers to allowing remote appearances and test solutions to resolve those barriers. I want to determine the best method(s) for remote appearance for a court’s constituency. This could be a new installation of permissible remote appearance or could be a test of existing rules and methods from those courts paving the way. Remember, remote appearance can take many forms, even the mere telephone!

  1. The Opioid Epidemic

Courts are thinking critically about their role in the opioid epidemic in America. This often means community partnerships rather than a solution executed solely by the court. I want to learn what courts are doing and test those interventions to determine effectiveness and understand the impact courts make.

  1. Online Dispute Resolution (“ODR”) Solutions

There is a lot of activity swirling around ODR in courts. What are the best case types for this solution?  When in the life of a case is it best to implement this solution? Should it be mandatory or voluntary?  What impact does it have on outcomes? I have so many questions!

  1. Fee Waiver Form Revisions

What is the best form of the fee waiver request that will allow litigants to understand what they need to complete to make this request and will allow judges and administrative reviewers to have the knowledge they need to make a determination? I would love to test revisions to forms to determine impact, whether that is testing specific components of the forms, testing versions, or testing delivery methods. I understand this may require court rule changes or statutory change in some cases. How can I help?

  1. Legal Information v. Legal Advice Training

Courts and clerks continue to define an appropriate level of assistance as one in which they provide legal information but do not provide legal advice. But, they struggle with identifying that line. How are courts and clerks going about training employees on this concept and is it useful to the employee? Does it give the employee enough information to help the public or is it causing overly limited help? Can we test different methods of providing this guidance to staff and then determine case outcome changes in some manner? Can we test materials that are provided to staff for guidance and determine how this knowledge is affecting their service to the public?

  1. Incorporating libraries into a study

Libraries are such an integral part of delivering access to justice in our communities. Libraries end up being the central hub where the community goes to determine if their problem has a legal remedy of any kind and then, if it does, to pursue that remedy. Libraries are integrating legal services into their repertoire in many forms including clinics, forms, instructional materials, web-based filing solutions, etc. I want to do a study that incorporates libraries as a constituency. I have some ideas but want to hear yours as well.

This is my abbreviated list (for real!). There are more ideas churning. I really enjoy talking with people about their ideas and formulating a plan to tackle empirical research in the law using your own solutions to improve access to justice. Please reach out. Let’s talk about what you think!  You can reach me at rdanser@law.harvard.edu.

1 thought on “Staff Profile: Renee Danser

  • Thanks for sharing. Congrats on joining the Lab. They are lucky to have you!

    Good to hear more about the reentry study–sounds pretty ambitious!

    On waivers, the CA rules are strong good. They simplify it for the litigant and also have strong protections for who can do a denial of fee waivers and process to challenge that–from a litigant point of view.

    On remote appearance, you probably saw this? http://www.courtstoday.com/article/remote-appearances-42706. Issues to consider consideration of due process (will evidence or testimony/credibility at stake?), it is voluntary, and does not systemically exclude those in slow worl areas or who don’t have access to internet, and has strong QA. Is it about access and leveling the playing field or saving $? I believe the Brennan Center had looked at this issue about 4-6 years go–so it might be good to reach out to them.

    ODR is a huge area and topic–and one that will take consensus building. Looking forward to hear more about that and learn more how pilots are implemented, what results are identified, and lessons learned.

    Keep the blogs coming!

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