What is the “study”?
The study is a randomized control trial (“RCT”) that investigates the effect of short-term incarceration on people’s lives. It offers recently arrested people who were assigned bail they can’t pay themselves, and who want to participate in the study, a 50-50 chance of being placed in an Extra-Chance Group or a Regular Pre-Trial Group.
For people randomized to the Extra-Chance Group, a local non-profit organization posts their bail, so that they can be free from jail while they await their trial. For people randomized to the Regular Pre-Trial Group, the local non-profit does not post their bail, but participants can still be released if they can post their own bail, or if someone else posts their bail for them, or if the judge removes their bail.
In other words, people in the Regular Pre-Trial Group experience the criminal justice system as though there were no study. The local non-profit tries to link all participants to social services. Participants agree to allow researchers to obtain information about them from government records (the researchers will keep the information anonymous), and they have the opportunity to receive incentives in return for answering survey questions.
What does “short-term” mean? How much jail time are we talking about?
Ordinarily between two and five weeks, but it could be a little shorter or much longer, depending on how fast the court system moves people’s cases from arrest to trial. How fast cases move from arrest to trial is in the control of the courts. It’s always been that way, and this study will not change anything about that.
How does doing all that provide information on the effect of short-term incarceration?
Researchers will compare the information from the surveys and the administrative records for the Extra-Chance Group versus the Regular Pre-Trial Group. Because a computerized randomization, like a lottery, decided who went in what group, the two groups are essentially the same except for the pretrial incarceration. So any differences in outcomes that the researchers observe are due to that pretrial incarceration. It’s the same kind of study that the FDA requires to figure out whether new drugs work, including for example cancer drugs.
Don’t we already know that incarceration harms people?
No. We’ve never had a credible, randomized field study in the United States. For the most part, what we have are non-randomized comparisons of people who posted bail (or were released) to people who weren’t released. The problem is that people who posted bail were different in all kinds of ways from people who didn’t. For example, the people who posted bail likely had more access to resources or had stronger social connections (because they were able to pay their own bail) than those who didn’t. They were likely charged with different kinds of offenses, and or had different kinds of criminal histories. They might have had fewer mental health problems. It wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison. Researchers wouldn’t know whether any differences in outcomes they observed between the two groups were due to any of these pre-existing differences or due to pretrial incarceration.
Is it legal to bail someone else out?
Yes. The law has always allowed anyone to bail anyone else out. You don’t have to be related to the arrested person or know them at all. The bail bondman industry has been making money bailing people out for a long time; bail bondsman rarely have a prior relationship with the people they bail out. What the study’s non-profit partners are doing is the same legally.
Who is doing the study?
Researchers at the University of Zurich and at the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School are doing the scientific research, and the NOMIS Foundation, based in Zurich, is providing the fundraising necessary to carry out the scientific research. The Therapeutic Justice Foundation and RISE are the non-profits doing the bailing out.
How long will the study last?
It depends on how many people participate, and how quickly. Right now, the plan is for three years of enrollment, two years of follow-up surveys, and several years of administrative data collection.
Where is the study taking place?
Bexar County, TX and Douglas and Lancaster Counties, Nebraska.
Who should I contact if I have more questions?
Contact Jim Greiner at the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, email@example.com with questions about the research operation. Contact Michel Maréchal, firstname.lastname@example.org, with questions about the bail-out operation.