May 25, 2016

Current Projects

With multiple evaluations currently in the field and many more in development, the Access to Justice Lab is poised to create the most consequential empirical knowledge base ever in law. The A2J Lab’s evaluations represent a cross-section of communities served, legal processes, and geographic areas.

We make all of our publications and, as much as possible consistent with legal and ethical obligations (particularly those related to privacy and confidentiality), all of our data publicly available. We do this in part by posting projects and registrations on Open Science Framework (OSF). Links to our studies on OSF are available at:

The A2J Lab does research in both civil and criminal access to justice areas. Examples of our current projects include:

Criminal Justice

Pretrial Release

The Public Safety Assessment-Decision Making Framework (PSA-DMF) System is a risk assessment instrument and decision-making framework designed to provide an accurate tool to distinguish criminal defendants according to the risk that they will engage in future misconduct. Jurisdictions across the United States have begun to implement the PSA-DMF System at the initial release/detention hearing at the start of a criminal case. We are conducting randomized control trials to assess whether providing the PSA-DMF System report to judicial officials making initial release/detention decisions leads to reductions in the following outcomes:

  • failures to appear at future hearings;
  • new criminal activity;
  • new violent criminal activity; and
  • the number of days defendants spend incarcerated pretrial.

Social Work in Public Defense

The holistic defense movement has developed over the past two decades as an auspicious alternative to the traditional system. Rather than focusing solely on criminal representation and courtroom advocacy, the holistic defense approach seeks to recognize the broader social problems that underpin criminal behavior by addressing clients’ underlying needs in addition to their criminal defense. The study will demonstrate 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.

Record Clearing (Expungement)

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 two-site RCT will provide that evidence for the first time.

Civil Justice

Financial Distress Research Project

The Financial Distress Research Project is a partnership among multiple branches of government, academia (students and professors), multiple non-profit service providers, and the private sector. People who participate in the project will be a part of a randomized control trial to understand the effectiveness of attorney representation, financial counseling, and self-help materials on financial health outcomes.

Problem of Default

We know that 95% or more of debt collection defendants lose their cases because they do not show up to court, even when they have a strong chance of winning their cases. Our debt collection studies address the question: How can legal services providers and courts persuade individuals to participate in legal processes?

Our pilot study, Problem of Default Part I, demonstrates that a well-constructed letter sent to debt collection defendants at the start of their case can more than triple the rate of defendants coming to court to contest their cases. Problem of Default Part II expands this pilot to additional sites and other materials.


Our legal service provider partners identified service of process as a primary barrier to resolution in guardianship cases in Boston. The study evaluates whether or not self-help materials, including an online tool, can make a difference to individuals who cannot afford an attorney.

Federal Court Mediation

A randomized control trial evaluating the effect of a formal mediation session with inmates in federal prison with civil rights complaints. This study is the first of any kind to evaluate an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program rigorously on multiple dimensions, including court and party expenditure of resources, litigant opinions of the judicial process and the result, and the parties’ post-litigation relationship.

In Development

We are always working with partners to ask hard questions about the justice system and explore new ideas for evaluations. Learn more about studies currently in development.