How we’re learning more about ways to improve access to justice across the U.S.

We’re closing out 2020 with a bang: We have three new studies in the field. Our amazing partners have worked with us to prepare and launch these projects in the face of the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19. Focusing on different topics and in different geographies, these new studies have the potential to improve access to justice across the U.S.


Transformative Justice Program (Williamson County, TX)

The Problem

In Texas, young adults aged 17 – 24 are overrepresented in the adult criminal justice system, accounting for 29% of the state’s arrests while only making up 11% of the population. Emerging adults also have the highest short-term recidivism of any age group due to underlying factors that are not addressed by the current criminal justice system. These factors include, among others, mental health struggles, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders.

The Program

The program is Williamson County’s first felony diversion program. It diverts emerging adults charged with a low-level felony offense from the traditional criminal justice system. The program is a court-based system that combines release into the community with developmentally appropriate, intensive, community-based services. County staff work with participants to create individualized plans to address health, housing, educational, and other needs.

Eligible participants can be part of the program for up to 18 months, and they will be connected with community social services providers to help them meet their individualized program goals. Participants who successfully meet the goals identified in their individual plan will graduate from the program and will be eligible for expungement of the record of the arrest and charges.

The Study

In partnership with Williamson County, the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, the A2J Lab has launched a randomized evaluation of the diversion program.

The research team will conduct an RCT to identify the effects of the program on several outcomes including recidivism rates and quality of health outcomes. The study will also supplement criminal justice data with quarterly surveys and other data sources.

What We’ll Learn

This study will provide important evidence about the impact of community-based services. The population has a high level of need. Because they are so young, any benefit they experience could improve their lives and their communities for decades to come. With this research, we will learn the extent of this potential improvement.


Online Dispute Resolution (Carroll County, IA and Miami-Dade County, FL)

The Problem

Miami-Dade will likely issue tens of thousands of traffic compliance tickets in 2020. These are minor infractions that often simply require a motorist to show proof of license, registration, or insurance to resolve the case. The complicating factor is that the motorist needs to get to the courthouse on the right day and time and wait until it is their turn to give this proof. Similarly, the three different law enforcement agencies that police the Carroll County roadways issued thousands of traffic tickets last year. All of these tickets require an in-person appearance if there’s a discrepancy to resolve.

Attendance can be difficult, and the consequences for not being in the right place at the right time can be expensive. While the process of having these tickets resolved is often inexpensive, leaving the issue unattended can result in increased fines and fees. The courts’ solution to this? Put it online.

The Program

With the installation of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), motorists can now avoid the hassle of getting to the courthouse–which comes with all of the typical inconveniences of parking, reliable transportation, taking time off of work, finding childcare–and upload all of the compliance documents or negotiate discrepancies online. Prosecutors and court staff can then review what is submitted and handle the ticket without ever causing the motorist to set foot in the courtroom.

The Study

The A2J Lab is running RCTs in both counties. The research team will measure outcomes such as perceptions of the justice system, time to disposition, settlement success, and failure to appear.

What We’ll Learn

This change is happening at a critical time for state courts in public perception. As courts are moving practices online to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, they have very little information about how those changes impact people’s perceptions of court experiences and other outcomes. This study will collect data on how using ODR impacts users’ overall perception of the justice system. This data, along with information about how cases resolve, will create evidence about how ODR improves the experiences of people in Miami-Dade and Carroll counties.


Plain Language Court Forms (DuPage County, IL)

The Problem

Reducing technical jargon and “legal-ese” is of major interest to access for justice advocates. For pro se litigants (people without lawyers), forms can be so complex that they require large sets of self-help materials to understand. Changing the forms themselves to be easy-to-read documents is a more efficient way to assist people without attorneys file the paperwork they need.

The Program

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Access to Justice created a Standardized Forms Committee to explore the creation of pro se forms that implement standardization and plain language practices. The new forms attempt to provide better guidance and support to pro se litigants by integrating plain language and simplification.

The study will include individuals who attempt to download a pro se divorce form for filing in DuPage County, Illinois. Any attempt to download a relevant form through the various websites, such as the DuPage County website (www.dupageco.org), the computers in the self-help center at the courthouse, or local legal aid organization websites will redirect to a study-based webpage. This webpage will verify eligibility for the study, provide information about the study, and subsequently provide either the new standardized pro se form or the previously created DuPage-specific pro se divorce form. These forms will be provided at random.

The Study

Through metadata and time-stamp information attached to the downloaded forms, as well as information documented in the court’s case management system, the A2J Lab will track a number of outcomes. These outcomes will include success of filing the form, time to filing, time to disposition, number of procedural errors, and whether the study participants use the downloaded form or end up reaching out to legal aid for assistance. The A2J Lab expects to conduct the field randomization for approximately six months and will track each case through disposition.

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.


Preliminary data for all of these studies will be available in the next year.

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