Building research partnerships to address failures to appear for court in Shasta County, part one
In 2019, California’s Shasta County Superior Court applied to J-PAL North America’s State and Local Evaluation Incubator (then “Innovation Competition”). They sought to design a randomized evaluation to test strategies to reduce the likelihood that those awaiting court processing in the community fail to appear (FTA) for their arraignment. FTA can be costly for those summoned to court. Even for minor offenses, an FTA can lead to additional fines, and in some cases, an arrest warrant, which can have serious long-term effects on an individual’s record.
Through their partnership with J-PAL North America, the Court connected with researchers Emily Owens and CarlyWill Sloan to conduct a randomized evaluation testing the effectiveness of text reminders on reducing FTA among both the housed and unhoused population living in Shasta County. We talked with Project Manager Shawn Watts of Shasta County Superior Court, who shared the Court’s takeaways from the process of designing a randomized evaluation through the State and Local Evaluation Incubator.
What made Shasta County interested in J-PAL North America’s Evaluation Incubator? What ultimately made you decide to apply?
The research we did on FTA revealed that there were few strategies available to reduce it. At the same time, the number of people experiencing homelessness was increasing across the country, including in Shasta County. One of the only effective strategies was reminder notifications, including telephone calls, postcards, and text messages, which were proven through randomized evaluations to reduce FTA rates. However, most studies were conducted in urban areas. We were interested in determining if reminder systems were also effective in a semi-rural setting such as Shasta County, especially among those experiencing homelessness.
J-PAL North America’s mission and their use of randomized evaluations to understand the effectiveness of a strategy seemed to be just what we needed. Additionally, the grant funding from J-PAL made such a rigorous evaluation possible despite our own limited budget.
Can you talk about the role that J-PAL North America’s Technical Assistance (TA) played in launching this study, and any ways that TA may have contributed to its success?
J-PAL North America’s technical assistance played a crucial role for us from the beginning of the project. Staff provided assistance with preparation to apply for J-PAL North America’s State and Local Innovation Initiative Request for Proposals and were always available to answer questions. They were supportive and served as good project coordinators, always keeping track of the progress of our work and keeping us on schedule.
Prior to this project, the Court had no experience with randomized evaluations. J-PAL North America funded attendance at a one-week course at MIT for our project manager and that allowed us to gain an understanding of the basics of good, predictive research. Our understanding of that process helped us to be successful when working with Emily Owens, our research partner from the University of California, Irvine with whom we connected through J-PAL North America.
What did you learn from the TA process and this randomized evaluation? What advice would you have for a governmental body looking to evaluate one of its programs?
We learned a lot from the J-PAL and the TA process. First, we learned that there are resources available, even to small organizations like our own, to help identify solutions to issues facing our communities or improve our processes. Before this project, we had no idea that funding and high caliber training was available to small, local government jurisdictions.
We also learned the value of randomized evaluations. Most governmental agencies, especially city or county agencies, do not have resources to conduct research. Consequently, these agencies come up with what they think are solutions to their issues, but in reality, good evidence doesn’t exist to show that what they are doing is making an impact. By running a randomized evaluation, the agency can be sure that what they are doing is truly effective.
What are some features that you would consider critical for a government agency to have in place prior to engaging with J-PAL North America through the Evaluation Incubator process?
A specific individual who can interact with J-PAL and is knowledgeable about most of the process of the agency is helpful to the success of the Evaluation Incubator process. It is also helpful if that individual has the ability to interact with all levels of the organization and local partners who also may be involved in the project.
Automated data that the agency may collect is helpful to the success of any project. I would suspect most research that is done relies on the availability of easily queried data.
A strong drive to solve a problem is also helpful to keep the agency engaged in the process and the research on track.
What are some ways that you see government organizations as uniquely positioned to generate and use evidence?
Governmental agencies touch every aspect of our lives and are charged with serving the public. They have access to, and collect, data that is not readily available to the private sector. Governmental agencies should maximize the use of that data for the public good. In our case, we have the responsibility to make access to the Court as easy as possible for the public, and to use our data to determine how to help our constituents, such as by sending court reminders through texts.
This piece is the first of a two-part blog series highlighting our research partnership in Shasta County. The second focuses on the researcher-practitioner partnership cultivated between Shasta County Superior Court and J-PAL affiliate Emily Owens.
This piece is also part of an ongoing series highlighting research partnerships with state and local government agencies fostered through J-PAL North America’s State and Local Evaluation Incubator. The first piece features Minnesota Management and Budget and the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy’s evaluation of the state’s prescription monitoring program (PMP).