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: a2jlab.org/osf-registrations.
The A2J Lab does research in both civil and criminal access to justice areas. Examples of our current projects include:
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.
The A2J Lab, in collaboration with the NOMIS Foundation, scholars from the University of Zurich and ETH-Zurich, Rise, and the Therapeutic Justice Foundation, is pursuing a first-of-its-kind, large-scale, scientific field study of the effects of predisposition release within the context of the United States bail system. A set of Frequently Asked Questions explains The Justice Study.
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.
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 RCT will provide that evidence for the first time.
Despite the potential for pretrial incarceration, most states do not supply an attorney to advocate for a defendant’s release at this “first appearance.” There is a presumption of innocence pretrial, and that presumption requires special circumstances for detention. Yet, without the assistance of counsel, defendants are ill-equipped to challenge the prospect of their own detention.
The majority of the literature points to the existence of juror bias, though there are certainly studies which either do not find effects or find that there is bias against white defendants. Mitchell et al. (2005), for example, conducted a meta-analysis and found a small but significant effect of racial bias on juror decisions. In another meta-analysis, Sweeney and Haney (1992) found that white mock-jurors give significantly longer sentences to white defendants than to black ones.
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.
Non-Lawyer Support in SNAP Benefits Cases
When there aren’t enough legal aid lawyers to go around, other options for help are often limited. Could trained advocates or other non-lawyer supports be part of the solution? This RCT is studying how effective trained advocates are at increasing success in SNAP benefits cases.
Plain Language Court Forms
Those who focus on self-help often propose that simplifying language in court forms will help self-represented litigants. This RCT will test that theory by randomizing people seeking divorce to assignment to a plain language form or the existing form.
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.
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.
The overwhelming majority of cases filed against an individual in a debt collection matter result in a default judgement with the defendant never responding. When an individual defendant representing themselves does respond, they rarely assert any defense or file a procedurally sufficient answer. This study hypothesizes that a large portion of debt collection cases brought would be defeated if defendants filed procedurally sufficient answers and asserted defenses.
This research examines the comparative advantages of online versus in-person appearances in sensitive cases for vulnerable litigants (Self-Represented Ls).
This pilot will investigate a proposed mechanism to transform eviction legal services from reactive and downstream to preventative and upstream; the mechanism may also increase take-up of legal services.
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.