In this New Thinking podcast, Kerry Walker, director of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Melbourne, Australia, describes some of the ways the Justice Centre engages the community, all with the long-term goal of promoting the rule of law and a “civil, caring society.” She reflects on lessons learned as the Justice Centre approaches its 10th anniversary, including, “Never act alone [but] only … in partnership.” The podcast concludes with a discussion of ways the Justice Centre is using technology to promote safety and make the court more user-friendly. The interview took place while Walker was in Chicago to attend Community Justice 2016.
The following is a transcript of the conversation:
KERRY WALKER: Allow for the unintended consequence, because it's often stronger than your first program idea.
ROB WOLF: Hi, this is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I'm at Community Justice 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. It's an international summit that's brought together over 400 people interested in court reform. With me right now is Kerry Walker, who is the director of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in the city of Yarra, which is part of the city of Melbourne, Australia. Hi Kerry.
WALKER: Hello Robert.
WOLF: I thought it would be interesting to talk to you today about the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, because you are shortly going to celebrate your tenth anniversary.
WALKER: We are.
WALKER: Thank you.
WOLF: I thought we could talk about the Justice Centre generally, and also focus in on community engagement, which is something that is an important part of community courts and community justice centers, and something that I know you guys are particularly good at doing. Why don't we start with that. Let's talk about community engagement. Maybe you can just define the term for me, because I think for people unfamiliar with community courts, they might say, "Why is a court of any kind engaging with the community? A court is supposed to remain apart from the community, above the community." Maybe you could explain to me what community engagement means.
WALKER: Community engagement for us is premised on the principle that ordinary citizens have a right to understand the law. They have a right to feel justice in their communities, and they have the right to be part of that relationship between the law and themselves and their neighbours. I think it's a new way of looking at the rule of law, and to say that justice must play an active role in a community. If we are serious that what we want to do via courts and via the rule of law, is to have a civil caring society where there is strong stewardship and tolerance and fairness, then we must play a part in that.
WOLF: Let's talk a little bit about that. You have neighbourhood in your name, and community justice, which is the approach you're speaking of, has the word community in it, so that means that there's a very local element, you're working in a particular neighbourhood. How exactly do you let the community initiate things? How do you communicate or open that communication?
WALKER: I can give you some examples of the type of activity we do. For instance, if there is to be a local festival, we will ring and say, "We would love to be a part of that, and we would love to come to the festival, but in order to come to the festival, we want to help either take the minutes or do the photocopying or help put up the tents. We want to do something, we want to be really active. We don't want to just turn up on the day with our trestle table and our books and say, 'Hi, aren't we lovely and wonderful, come and talk to us and we'll tell you what we do.'" We, I think, show by example about putting our shoulder to the wheel, and show that we are really serious in participating, and therefore getting to know people.
WOLF: Where's the intersection of justice? If you're involved in a community activity, how does that intersect with what you're actually doing in the court?
WALKER: We have quite a different legal system to the American system, and it is, in some ways, more monolithic and more difficult to have that participatory interaction at the court phase. However, what we have done is the community work part of what we do, is very carefully chosen.
WOLF: What do you mean? Community work can mean like a restitution project, which a defendant might be sentenced to as part of their sentence?
WOLF: I see. Does the community help you identify areas where crime and safety issues, where the court can focus on certain safety issues, whether it's street corners or types of offending that the community's concerned about?
WALKER: Yes. We are part of a number of local safety committees that we have been invited to be members of that. Again, we wait to be invited. We don't say, "We're the Justice Center, we should be a part of this." What we say is, "If there is ever an opportunity where you think we could be helpful, we would love to take that up." Invariably we do get invited. We also are invited to a number of resident-led types of meetings and committees. We always have the voice of the community. The other part is that there are lots of groups in the community who use our building to meet. We'll ask, at times, that they would like one of us to come and talk to them about a particular issue, or might just grab us as we're there. It's both informal and formal, but we try to embed ourselves in what is resident-led.
We're always also trying to leverage off the talents and the strengths of the community. We've just been involved in this big project of street art, and it's really an anti-graffiti project. They wanted some money from us, and I said, "Yeah, I'm happy to do that, because I think it's really worthwhile and I can see that it's a crime-prevention activity." I said, "But, you are really popular with young people, so what I want is for you to mentor and teach some young people how to do some stencil art, but on our back wall so that they will come into the center and that they will have a confidence about what it means."
WOLF: I see, and the young people aren't necessarily involved in the justice system.
WOLF: They're just young people from the community.
WOLF: I suppose the impact that you've had on community perceptions or attitudes towards the justice system, is that something ... That would be hard to measure. Do you have, apart from anecdotally, a sense of how you perhaps, over the last ten years, have, through your engagement, affected community attitudes towards the justice system?
WALKER: Well, what we know is that the police tell us that their relationship with the community has improved, they say, a thousandfold, because of their relationship with us. People trust them much more because of us. We know that the Aboriginal community feels much safer with justice than they have felt before we came, because they tell us that, and we know that when we first came, very rarely would an Aboriginal person turn up for their court case. We have done a lot of work over the years about encouraging that confidence, and now we have a turn up rate between 85 and 95%. But we have done things like have a specific day for Aboriginal people where we put on a kangaroo barbecue, and we invite their families and their support as well as local agencies. It becomes much more than just, "Oh yes, you're here to be processed." It is actually a way of saying, "No, no. This building, this place, is a part of the community, and you are always welcome here."
WOLF: Tell me, in January you're going to turn ten, the Neighbourhood Justice Center's going to turn ten. Do you have any lessons you can share for people who are interested in community justice, in community courts, and just interested in building better relationships between the justice system and their communities?
WALKER: I think some of the lessons we've learned ... One of the big lessons we've learned was that we got it right when we said, "We will never act alone, we will only ever act in partnership." That, I think, has worked, in that it's stopped us getting too cocky and it means if I think I've got a good idea, then I actually have to go outside and find someone else who thinks it's a good idea, or it's not going to happen. I have hung onto what I think are good ideas, sometimes for years, until I can find someone who will say yes.
WOLF: Someone in the community per se? Or could be another agency?
WALKER: In the community or it could be another agency. But for instance, I have been attending a community meeting now for ten years, and at that meeting, I, maybe every third or fourth meeting, I talk about the Baltimore Community Conferencing Center. "Wouldn't it be great if we did something like that?" And everyone just says, "Moving along now. It's a next agenda item."
WOLF: That's where you bring together various members of a community where there's perhaps been some kind of dispute or a difference to problem-solve together, collectively?
WALKER: That's right. Two years ago, again, I raised it, so this is me having done this for nearly eight years, and someone said, "I saw it on the television, I saw it about those kids. Yeah. And a local chef came down and he baked a big cake for them and it was just great, and now they've got a football tent. We should do that." I thought, "I don't believe this. For eight years I've tried to explain this, but it meant ... All I had to do was just wait for it to come on the television."
WOLF: It's not real until it's on TV.
WALKER: That's right. Now what we're doing is opening up a portal that will be based on the practice of the Baltimore Community Conference Center, which I'm going to visit during this trip.
WOLF: Fantastic, wow. Any other lessons?
WALKER: The other is I think about ... Allow for the unintended consequence, because it's often stronger than your first program idea. What we have found is that often when we've had an idea and we've gone through with that, the outcomes, in fact, are things we never expected them to be. They are very powerful, because they arise out of the relationships that are made, rather than anything that we have actually tried to drive. I think the third is about ... Messy is okay. You can't know every step that you're going to take. That's what innovation is about. If you always know what the endgame is, well, it's not true innovation.
WOLF: You have been doing new things all the time, I'm always hearing about new ideas that you guys are up to with technology, you're doing some things.
WALKER: One of the things we're doing and it's in the area of family violence is we're trying to give more confidence to the citizen. Family violence is gendered, in the main, it's women who apply for domestic violence orders. What tends to happen is that women in crisis are treated much more as children. "No, let me help you do that and here's ... No you'll need to sit down with me to fill out the form." They lose their agency essentially, and we thought, "What would happen if we changed the 18 page form, took out all the legal things, put emotional intelligence into the form, and put the risk factors in, and did it in a way that the women really felt they were able to tell their story." Didn't have to come to court to do that, and sit with a stranger and perhaps cry through it and be upset, but be able to sit with friends, or sit the library, or do it at work, wherever they felt safest. By not having to come to court it means you don't have to lie about where you're going, you don't have to take a day off work, you don't have to organize childcare. This you can fill it in over a month period, so you can come in and out of it, and it's got all sorts of safety features.
WOLF: Doing it online that way?
WALKER: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The revolution about this is not so much the form, which people are really focused on, but it is about ... What this will do is it will help change culture in the mainstream courts, because what this does is say ... When that automated application comes through, the court then has to contact the applicant. They will know very quickly whether or not they've responded well, because the applicant has the right to then say, "Uh-uh. I'm not coming to your court, I want to go to somebody else's court who's going to treat me well." It really is putting in accountability onto courts that they've not seen before. The other digital project we're working on is that when you go to court, you're told, "Get there at 9:00 in the morning," and it could be at ten to four in the afternoon that you find out your case is adjourned. It's like going to the airport and there's no arrival and departure sign.
WOLF: Interesting metaphor. Yeah. Wow.
WALKER: What we've done is we've developed, it's a co-design with a local company, where everyone who has an involvement with a case will know what is going on, including the person who is going before the court. They will be able to download an app on their phone that will show them, "Oh, yeah, my lawyer is now seeing the prosecutor. Oh, I was supposed to go and do something. I better go and organize that. Everyone's waiting on a report to come from the psychiatrist. Okay, I'll get that." They'll be able to see, in real time, on a commercial grade board outside the court where their case is in the order for the day, so that they can make decisions about, "Hmm, I might stay here, I might go away, I might ask the court to send me a text half an hour before my case is going to come up."
WALKER: There'll be much more power for everyone in knowing what's going on. We think that this will, again, give a real confidence. What we're doing is we're building in the analytics so that over time we're hoping that we can help courts discover the granularity of time, and be able to better organize themselves. It's the last bastion of utter disorganization.
WOLF: Clearly this is stuff you weren't thinking about ten years ago when you got started, so that's just a sign of how you are continuing to evolve and stay innovative and on the cutting edge. Thank you very much Kerry Walker for taking the time-
WALKER: Thank you Robert.
WOLF: Here at Community Justice 2016 to talk with me. Kerry is the director of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, in the city of Yarra, which is in the city of Melbourne, in Australia. I am Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you very much for listening.