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Texas A&M and Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School researchers to evaluate counsel at first appearance

Hays County selected for first study of its kind conducted by Texas A&M University and Harvard researchers.

Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute (PPRI) and the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School (A2J Lab) are launching a randomized study of counsel at first appearance (CAFA) in Texas—the first study of its kind.

At first appearance, magistrates decide whether a person will be released while awaiting trial or held in jail. Yet only four of 254 Texas counties provide lawyers at this important stage. This week, the research team launches the evaluation in Hays county. Previously, counsel was typically assigned after first appearance. Going forward, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC) will provide the funding for counsel to be present at magistration some of the time to evaluate the effect of provision of counsel. The study will randomize days on which counsel is present for a first appearance. Eligible study participants will participate in brief interviews with study attorneys before being represented.

This study will use a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test whether CAFA:

  • Lowers money bond amounts
  • Increases the likelihood of non-monetary bonds (personal bonds)
  • Increases pretrial release
  • Affects the likelihood of defendants returning to court
  • Reduces jail costs and overall system costs

The Hays county COVID-19 response means that these appearances are now occurring remotely. This adjustment will allow researchers to observe a change in outcomes when appearance is remote versus when appearance is in-person upon resumption of normal operations. This observational analysis may pave the way to understanding the value of online courts.

Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell said, “Hays County is excited to participate in this study. We believe it will provide vital information that can be used to continue improvements to our justice system.”

George Naufal, associate research scientist at the PPRI at Texas A&M University, says, “Understanding the impact of appearance at this stage will provide a huge benefit to the people of Texas. As more jurisdictions consider adding counsel at this stage, providing them with information about the effectiveness will help them decide if it’s a prudent use of their resources.”.

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director of the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School, says, “The decisions made at the first court appearance have a huge impact. Those decisions mean the difference between spending days, weeks, months, or, in some cases, years in jail before a trial even occurs. With this study, we’ll get concrete evidence about whether providing counsel at those appearances makes a meaningful difference. If it does, this program could become a model for others.”

The study is supported by Arnold Ventures and the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

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