A study led by HLS Professor Jim Greiner shows that low-income Philadelphians have a hard time accessing a divorce without an attorney — a problem that is likely widespread.
Studying Justice Or Hurting It: The Fight Over A2J Research
January 26, 2021
Some defendants appearing in court in Dane County, Wisconsin, are given a risk-assessment score to reduce bias in decisions about bail and pretrial release. Other defendants in the same court — and even before the same judge — are not. The disparate treatment isn't because of discrimination or a lack of resources. It's because the defendants are members of two different groups in a scientific study. Randomized controlled trials like this one designed to evaluate the risk-assessment tool are the "gold standard" for research in most social sciences and in medicine, where they are currently being used to test COVID-19 vaccines, according to researchers. But similar studies in the field of access to justice have been few and far between, they say...In the Dane County study, Harvard Law School's Access to Justice Lab is evaluating the efficacy of a public safety assessment tool, which gives defendants a score to inform judges' pretrial bail decisions. Defendants are randomly selected to either be given the score before their initial court appearance or not, according to Jim Greiner, the lab's faculty director. Researchers then track defendants for two years to measure days spent incarcerated, failures to appear and new criminal activity, among other outcomes, to measure the impact those scores have on defendants, Greiner says...Activists, however, argue that we don't need to study reforms like doing away with pretrial detention or better funding public defenders to know that the absence of those interventions is harmful. "Abundant research already exists showing that pretrial incarceration causes harm to detained people and their loved ones," says Katy Naples-Mitchell, a staff attorney at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. "Denying a control group of people pretrial release, something we know will help them, and subjecting them to something we know hurts them in the interests of research is ethically insupportable."