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.
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.