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Harvard starts study in Lincoln, Omaha looking at effect of short-term incarceration

The Lincoln Journal Star - 8/21/2022

Aug. 20—A Nebraska nonprofit began approaching recent arrestees in Lancaster and Douglas counties this week to ask if they would participate in a new Harvard School of Law study investigating the effect of short-term incarceration on people's lives.

Those who agreed had a 50-50 chance of randomly being chosen for the "Extra-Chance Group," with their bonds being paid by RISE, a local group that focuses on habilitative programming in prisons and reentry support.

The other half would stay in jail unless they came up with their own bond money, the same as they would if there were no study.

Jim Greiner, director of Harvard Law School's Access to Justice Lab, said the premise of the study is to investigate whether there is a population of folks who could be safely released into the community before trial.

"Does it produce better outcomes for them? Does it produce better outcomes for the whole community?" Greiner said.

To find a location to carry out the study, he said, they looked for areas without charitable bail funds already in place. It led them to choose courts in Lincoln and Omaha, in addition to Bexar County, Texas.

Greiner said RISE, their Nebraska partner, will have an employee do interviews at the jails to tell arrestees about the study and ask if they're willing to participate.

April Faith-Slaker, one of the researchers and a former Nebraskan, said they will work with RISE, which will post bail for some defendants recently arrested for nonviolent offenses, "for whom a lack of bail money is the only thing standing between them and release from pretrial incarceration."

The research team then will compare a range of outcomes for those bailed out by RISE to those who weren't.

"At the end of the study, we will be able to measure the effects of pretrial release on criminal case processing, recidivism, employment, housing, family stability, physical and mental health, and public benefits, among other things," Faith-Slaker said.

Greiner said it's the same kind of study, using empirical data, that the FDA requires to test new drugs before they're released to consumers.

There have been studies before that compare consequences of various kinds of incarceration, but they haven't taken into account that the people who can post bond are fundamentally different than those who can't, he said.

Typically, those who can have stronger family ties and social networks.

This study takes those differences into account, he said. So it's comparing groups that are alike to each other.

"The same, exempt for that one thing," Greiner said.

He said they're shooting for hundreds of participants over the next three years of enrollment, two years of follow-up surveys and several years of administrative data collection.

Greiner said to be patient. It won't be a quick process.

"Studies like this take a lot of time to produce credible information," he said.

It's just the latest study Harvard has undertaken at the Access to Justice Lab, which does research in both civil and criminal access to justice areas with an aim at using empirical research to make the U.S. justice system work better for everyone.

Greiner, who has been in the legal field for more than 30 years, said it's surprising to many people to know that the field of law isn't an evidence-based field.

"Law typically puts the cart before the horse," he said, unlike other fields, such as medicine.

Access to Justice's goal is to change that — by studying things such as the effect of implicit bias in juries, the effect of court-date reminders in public defense cases, homelessness prevention through eviction diversion and the effect of short-term incarcerations — so it can contribute scientific evidence to the conversation about potential reforms.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or

On Twitter @LJSpilger


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