O’Neil’s research focuses on poverty, alternative sanctions, housing insecurity, public policy, and racial inequality.
O’Neil’s work uncovers the impact of court-ordered fines, fees, and costs in perpetuating poverty and sustaining gender and racial disparities in American families. O’Neil studies how our most vulnerable Americans interact with the judicial system to understand how excessive court-mandated costs can spur deleterious consequences such as homelessness, bankruptcy, crime, and victimization. Her work is supported by the Arnold Foundation with which she is Co-Investigator and site leader for the State of Michigan.
In her investigations into monetary sanctions in courts in Michigan, O’Neil argues that court costs are a cause, rather than merely a symptom, of incarceration and poverty as echoed by the Department of Justice Ferguson Report and Edelman’s, Not a Crime to be Poor. O’Neil’s mixed-methods study revealed that litigants struggling with paying court costs were disproportionately female and minority, and inability to pay often resulted in arrest warrants following failed attempt(s) by courts to notify defendants of hearings by mail, much like in Ferguson. Many defendants and their children reported struggling with housing insecurity–eviction, foreclosure, and/or homelessness and lacked permanent addresses with which they might have received written correspondence from courts. Missing a court date, deemed “failure-to-appear” in itself constituted a crime, resulting in bench warrants, and for many, incarceration. The issuance of a warrant was often accompanied by corresponding fines, fees, and more court costs. At times, defendants were made offers by judges to trade jail time for fees, in which if they paid a fine, they would be released from jail—circling back the initial insurmountable hurdle, the defendant’s inability to pay. This study is forthcoming in Law and Contemporary Problems.
The upside of this evaluation is that online dispute resolution proved to be highly effective at engaging vulnerable defendants, offering judges a platform to more accurately address ability to pay, reduce bias, and provide alternative sanctions that litigants were more likely to comply with. Online dispute resolution in turn cleared warrants and lowered the incarceration rate for the most disadvantaged litigants.
At University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions, O’Neil is helping to advance and target online court software to provide 24/7 online access to courts for extremely vulnerable populations, including those facing housing insecurity (eviction, foreclosure, homelessness, re-entry), those recovering from addiction, and survivors of domestic violence. With this initiative, O’Neil hopes to improve access to justice in ways that are cost-effective, empirically based, less biased, and deter future crime and victimization. This legal intervention received two INNOVATE awards, including the “Judge’s Choice Award” from the University of Michigan. O’Neil was also presented a service cord from Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs at the University of Michigan for her commitment to justice.
O’Neil is visiting at the University of Michigan in the Department of Sociology and was previously a Women’s International Leaders Fellow at International House of NYC. At present, she is sponsored at the Population Studies Center by Professor Emeritus Reynolds Farley. Prior to matriculating to her PhD program, O’Neil contributed to several program evaluations as a Data Scientist II for the City of New York with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Human Resource Administration (HRA)-Department of Social Services under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. HRA is the nation’s largest social service agency with an annual budget of $9.7 billion and prides themselves on meeting the needs of the most diverse clientele nationwide. O’Neil also worked as a Data Scientist for the world’s leading investment bank, producing firm metrics on employees in 40 countries and survey research for national periodicals such as Black Enterprise, Latina Style and Working Mother. O’Neil plans to complete her Ph.D. by May 2018. O’Neil is the first generation in her family to attend college.
O’Neil has applied quantitative and qualitative research and evaluation training obtained as a trainee and later Data Scientist on Wall Street, as well as with the Police Department, Department of Homeless Services, Office of Special Narcotics, among others. O’Neil’s graduate quantitative training was interdisciplinary in nature and included an M.A. in Quantitative Methods of the Social Sciences at Columbia University as well as supplementary training such as Hierarchical Linear Modeling with ICPSR and Geographic Information Systems at the University at Albany. This specialized training prepared O’Neil to efficiently manage, analyze, and present data for public and private audiences and for publication.
photo credit: pbs.org