October 2, 2018

In Development

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:

Citation in lieu of Arrest

The Problem: Nationally, about twelve million people lose their freedom to arrest each year. These arrests have the potential to impact housing and employment outcomes for years to come. They also take officers off the street. A primary justification for arrest, one the United States Supreme Court invokes, is to assure appearance at court proceedings.

The Questions: Is using a citation (like a traffic ticket) in lieu of arrest for certain offenses a solution that can reduce the negative impacts of arrest while preserving court appearance rates and public safety? Is arrest worth the costs, as compared to alternatives?

The Study: With potential to launch in multiple jurisdictions, this evaluation could take one of several forms, including:

1) Individuals identified by law enforcement of committing an offense that is eligible for a permissive citation in lieu of arrest, and who pose no discernible safety risk to themselves or to the officer or to the public, will be assigned by lottery to either arrest or to receive a citation; or

2) Individuals identified by law enforcement of committing an offense that is eligible for a permissive citation in lieu of arrest, and who pose no discernible safety risk to themselves or to the officer or to the public, will be assigned by lottery to either arrest or receipt of citation in lieu of arrest by officer discretion or by random assignment.

What We’ll Learn: If proven effective, using citation could reduce costs and downstream impacts individuals experience due to arrest, while at the same time making more police officers available for other work. This intervention also has the potential to scale nationally.

Drug Courts

The Problem: Formerly incarcerated individuals face overwhelming obstacles as they attempt to reintegrate into society. These obstacles can be pervasive, undermining their stability in a range of areas of their lives, including employment, education, housing, family stability, and health. Substance abuse and addiction have been cited as a particularly intractable challenge for this population: of the 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the United States, 65% meet the DSM-VI medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction. Based on the theory that substance abuse and addiction contribute to criminal behavior, drug courts and other problem-solving courts have emerged as a treatment-based alternative to incarceration and traditional probation. The current body of evidence, however, is insufficient to support their continued investment without further research.

The Questions: Does participation in a post-conviction drug court program reduce recidivism and improve employment, housing, and health outcomes as compared to traditional probation? For whom and under what circumstances are post-conviction drug court programs most effective? How cost-effective are drug court programs, given potential savings from reduced recidivism and improved employment, housing and other outcomes?

The Study: The A2J Lab has co-developed an evaluation of an existing post-conviction drug court program. The study design would randomly assign participants to either a drug court or a traditional probation program after the initial referral and risk assessment procedures had been completed. Average program completion time is approximately 17 months, and outcome data will be collected for two years post-completion. Outcome data will include both administrative data, including housing and employment data, as well as self-reported data from participant surveys that will allow the research team to capture information about participants’ experiences of the diversion program.

What We’ll Learn: Because of their popularity, drug courts are receiving an increasing amount of resources. By learning how their use impacts participant outcomes, policymakers will be able to decide which programs are the best matches for their communities. The survey element will provide valuable insight into participants’ direct experiences with the program.

Eviction Diversion (Part I)

The Problem: Evidence suggests that low-income families have a high level of mobility, often from one disadvantaged neighborhood to the next, and that eviction (formal or informal) can eliminate housing options. Currently, there are no studies regarding whether legal advice provided before the landlord files a formal eviction will result in favorable resolutions for tenants, including improved housing conditions and fewer formal and informal evictions.

The Questions: Is early, low-cost legal assistance an effective, and cost-effective, intervention to prevent evictions that may lead to homelessness? Does that reduction in formal evictions result in a reduction in homelessness and poverty?

The Study: In collaboration with partners, the A2J Lab will evaluate an eviction diversion clinic. Participants will be randomly assigned either to receive a brochure depicting their rights as tenants and attend the clinic (treatment) or just to receive the brochure (control). In addition to the provision of legal advice, when appropriate, the clinic will produce a letter to landlords reiterating the tenant’s rights and the landlord’s obligations under area law or a formal rent-withholding letter. Thereafter A2J Lab will follow study participants to learn whether they avoided the formal eviction process, whether housing conditions improved, and whether, as a result, housing stability improved.

What We’ll Learn: The results will allow the broader legal services industry to understand the usefulness of eviction diversion as a tool to combat homelessness for low-income populations. As more and more jurisdictions adopt this strategy to ameliorate the eviction crisis, having empirical data about how the program works has the potential to improve policy decisions for decades to come.

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.

Eviction Triage

The Problem: Residential displacement can disrupt a host of life activities and undoubtedly takes an emotional toll on tenants and their families. To mitigate those impacts, we need to know more about how tenants find themselves as defendants in summary eviction proceedings, the role that lawyers play in stopping or delaying those proceedings, and whether existing legal solutions address the problems of eviction as we understand them.

The Questions:How well do lawyers allocate the scarce resource of their time? Does legal representation yield improved outcomes for those facing eviction?

The Study: With its field partners, the A2J Lab has designed a double-randomized study. This RCT will investigate (1) how well lawyers make decisions about whom to represent; and (2) whether outcomes with direct representation are measurably different from those where tenants only have access to self-help materials. After staff attorneys conduct intake and make provisional representation decisions, the A2J Lab will randomize each potential client into one of two groups (the first level of randomization). In the first group, the attorney’s decision will be followed; in the second group, another random decision will replace the attorney’s. Among that second group, a computer-based randomizer will “decide” whether the potential client receives an offer of representation or self-help materials (the second level of randomization).

What We’ll Learn: This RCT design will help identify which eviction defendants’ outcomes truly depend on representation, whether those outcomes are continuances, stays of execution, or even possession of the apartment. It also will reveal whether the offer of direct representation increases the probability of success relative to receiving the self-help packet. Considering the larger social impact of eviction, this study will include non-adjudicatory outcomes measures such as the incidence of homelessness, unemployment, and adverse health effects, among other individual welfare consequences.

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.

Non-Lawyer Support in SNAP Benefits Cases

The Problem: In most of the U.S., there aren’t enough lawyers to represent everyone in need. In rural areas, geographic barriers provide an additional obstacle. At the same time, the legal profession has resisted integration of non-lawyer advocates into the profession. These two issues in tandem severely limit access to representation in most of the U.S.

The Questions: Do trained advocates (not lawyers) increase successful outcomes in SNAP benefits cases? How effective are they compared to full representation?

The Study: Potential clients of a rural legal services provider who are seeking assistance in application for SNAP benefits will be assigned to one of two groups: representation by an attorney or representation by a trained advocate. The study will measure the outcomes of their cases and experiences of the process.

What We’ll Learn: If non-lawyer support is effective in rural contexts, use of such a practice in specific instances could drastically increase available legal support by lowering the cost of entry for those willing and able to be trained as advocates.

Using Virtual Reality in Legal Training

The Problem: Two current solutions to the shortage of representation for people who cannot afford attorneys—pro bono representation and supported self-representation—both usually involve some sort of training. But how effective is that training? Would using new virtual reality technology be a cost-effective alternative? Would it improve outcomes?

The Questions: Does training pro bono attorneys how to represent clients in issues outside their normal areas of practice improve client outcomes? Does teaching pro se litigants what to expect in court improve their outcomes in debt collection cases?

The Studies: Two evaluations would test the efficacy of using virtual reality in legal training in these two different contexts: self and pro bono representation. In each study, participants would be randomized to receive either the current training or a new virtual reality training.

What We’ll Learn: These are the first two studies in the U.S. to evaluate the impact of VR training in an access-to-justice context. As technology becomes cheaper, the scalability of these trainings means that if they’re effective they could be expanded to make a major impact quickly.