Criminal prosecutions send powerful messages. They tell a society what is acceptable behavior—and what is not—and can help reinforce the overall rule of law.
In 2019, one in four women in Chile experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). It takes courage to file a criminal complaint in these cases, and few women pursue legal action.
Even after filing a complaint, the process is tough. Of those who file, a third drop out before the case has concluded. This can be risky for victims (we use “victim” instead of “survivor” because it is the legal term for people who file an intimate partner violence case). When they drop the case, court-ordered protections are no longer enforced, which can expose them to retaliation and other forms of abuse.
A behavioral insights approach has the potential to increase the number of victims who complete their proceedings and can support the effective prosecution of IPV cases—which can help shift social norms around violence and protect survivors.
Applying behavioral insights to victim dropout
After identifying this challenge, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Chile developed a theory that closer support to victims—through additional phone support in the process—could reduce dropout rates. UNDP decided to explore incorporating behavioral insights into the design of this new protocol to ensure it would be effective. To this end, they chose to partner with BIT and the Prosecutor’s Office for Gender and Intra-Family Violence, part of the Regional Metropolitan Center North Prosecutor’s Office in Santiago.
UNDP laid the groundwork for the project by interviewing victims to understand their experiences in the court system. They face a few barriers in the process, including the time it takes to complete an IPV case (proceedings can last for months), isolation (victims may not receive an update for extended periods), and uncertainty about what to expect. Together, we interviewed prosecutors as well to take stock of the current criminal proceedings process in Santiago.
To complement this firsthand knowledge, we reviewed relevant academic literature to understand which behavioral factors may be negatively influencing victim outcomes and to identify evidence-based strategies to overcome them. During a multi-day workshop with our UNDP partners and staff members from the Prosecutor’s Office, we co-created a behavioral intervention to address these barriers.
The intervention: Phone calls and SMS text messages
We designed a randomized controlled trial to evaluate whether reminder phone calls and text messages sent to victims at key moments throughout their criminal proceedings would reduce dropout rates.
Between October 2019 and November 2020, women who filed an IPV complaint in Santiago were randomly assigned to either a treatment or a control group for comparison. The treatment group received a call and/or text at these points in the process:
- After filing the complaint
- Before each hearing
- Before the trial
- After the verdict
We included important reminders and information in these messages, including details about protection orders and services available through Centro de la Mujer, a local program for survivors. UNDP contracted two victim advocates to send the text messages and make the calls during the implementation period from the Prosecutor’s Office.
Behavioral insights informed the timing and flow of the messages, as well as the content, which aimed to address the barriers identified in the interviews and literature review. The control group experienced the typical criminal proceedings process, with the exception of an additional phone call to get their consent to participate in the study.
The results: reduction in dropout and rise in charges
We found that phone calls and SMS text messages reduced the victim dropout rate by about 12 percentage points or 30%. Not only did more women follow through on their cases, we also found that the Prosecutor’s Office pressed charges in 16% more cases in the treatment group and the proportion of cases provisionally archived decreased by 43%.
We also analyzed other exploratory outcomes, such as the likelihood of the prosecutor to drop the case and the rates of guilty verdicts. Trends were encouraging, however, we can’t be sure of the effects because they were not statistically significant.
Pandemic and socio-political challenges
We experienced many challenges during implementation that affected our evaluation data. Our sample size was not as large as we had planned. We aimed to include at least 700 victims in the research. But due to the pandemic and socio-political crisis in Chile at the time, we reached 449 victims total.
Of that group, 263 cases came to an end during the implementation period. Therefore, not everyone got the same level of support. Victims in the cases that were still ongoing by the end of November 2020 did not receive phone support for the entire duration of the proceedings. Because of these limiting factors, our results—though promising—should be interpreted with caution.
The criminal legal response to intimate partner violence is a complex issue. Prosecuting these cases fairly and efficiently while minimizing re-victimization is a challenge not only in Chile, but around the world. In addition to our work with UNDP in Chile, BIT teams have developed interventions in England and New Zealand to increase court attendance and better engage victims and defendants.
More research must be done to conclude if reminder phone calls and texts reduce victim dropout. We hope to evaluate the intervention with a larger sample size—ideally at the national level in Chile. We also invite opportunities to replicate this trial in other countries facing similar challenges.
If you would like to learn more about our work with UNDP Chile or explore partnering with us in Latin America and the Caribbean, please contact us here.