Court observation programs around the country send volunteers into courts to observe, collect data, and sometimes issue reports about what they've seen. Their goals include keeping courts accountable to the public and improving transparency, but not all courts are eager to receive public feedback. CourtWatch of King County, Washington, has worked closely with its local courts since the program's founding, trying to build a relationship that is more collaborative than adversarial. As Laura Jones, manager, and Mary Laskowski, services and outreach coordinator, explain to New Thinking host Robert V. Wolf, this collaborative approach has allowed CourtWatch to support judges and court administrators in efforts to improve the court experience for everyone.
This product was supported by Grant No. 2015-TA-AX-K023 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, or recommendations expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
LAURA JONES: ... basic things like audibility, could the proceedings be heard in the courtroom. We've gotten feedback from volunteers that microphones weren't turned on. We're passing that along to the court.
ROB WOLF: This is New Thinking, the podcast of the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Rob Wolf, the Center's director of communications. Here at the Center for Court Innovation, we are dedicated to supporting, advising, and reforming the justice system. When we can, we like to talk to people on the podcast who are working to make positive changes in justice where they live.
On today's show, I'm talking with two people who run a CourtWatch program in King County in Washington State. The CourtWatch model, as practiced around the country, sends volunteers into courtrooms to observe, take notes, collect data and sometimes issue reports about what they see. Having volunteer observers in the courtroom keeps courts accountable to the public and improves transparency.
In terms of the kinds of relationships CourtWatch programs have with the courts they are observing, situations vary. Some relationships are more adversarial, some more collaborative. There was a judge in Minnesota who was once so incensed by the presence of CourtWatch volunteers bearing red clipboards, that he suggested that the red was as intimidating as a gang color.
CourtWatch of King County, which is run by the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center in Renton, Washington, takes a more collaborative approach. Its volunteers, bearing their own brightly colored clipboards, focus on observing sexual assault cases, and a significant majority of judges have welcomed their feedback to help make their procedures more comprehensible and less intimidating to litigants.
With me today to discuss the program are Laura Jones, manager of CourtWatch, and Mary Laskowski, services and outreach coordinator. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions today.
JONES: Thank you. Happy to do so.
WOLF: For listeners who may not be familiar with what a CourtWatch program is, can you talk about them generally, and then we can drill down into the specifics of your program.
JONES: Sure, thanks Rob. This is Laura here. CourtWatch programs, regardless of their area of focus, really engage in court monitoring. That's a way to gather information about the courts through observation. Our program focuses on sexual assault cases. We're observing civil, sexual assault protection orders, as well as felony level criminal sex offense cases.
With that focus, and by synthesizing the information that we collect and feeding it back into the system, whether it by report or individual outreach to people in the system, or through the development and provision of resources, our objective is to help to improve and to inform the system response to sexual violence.
I think court can also be mysterious and a formal setting to the average person. Involvement by our volunteers in court monitoring helps to provide them with a forum to gain understanding about the legal system and that increased understanding can help to improve trust in the system.
WOLF: How did it come to be that you guys decided that a CourtWatch program would be a good fit, and where did the idea come from?
JONES: This is Laura. When our program was started in 2010, it was really seen as a way to help to support, I guess, anecdotal evidence about what was happening in court. We had staff that were in court regularly flagging things that might be an issue. CourtWatch was seen as a way to help to verify or substantiate those trends in that way, and also, I think, just recognizing that data is really a jumping off point for further conversation. It was seen as a way to help engage more with the system.
WOLF: What kind of data are you talking about, though? What were you seeing? What were the patterns?
JONES: One of the areas was with the sexual assault protection order calendar. Because it was relatively new, just things about how the process ran, what evidence was required of parties, and then things like how long cases take, for example. I think that was one where now we're able to have some data to talk about how long the cases take in King County.
WOLF: Maybe you could just give a little bit more about the history. It's the order of protection that was new, you didn't have that in these kinds of cases, and that's partly what inspired the CourtWatch program.
JONES: I can give a little bit of history about that live, if that would be helpful. Prior to 2006, victims of sexual assault were really limited in terms of what options they had to apply for civil protections in court. A victim could petition for a domestic violence protection order if they had a family or household relationship with the respondent, or they could petition for an anti-harassment order; however, one of the requirements of that statute is that there's a course of conduct. That has been interpreted to mean more than one instance. For the victim of a one-time assault by a non-family or a household member, they really had no civil legal remedies in these cases. That's how the Sexual Assault Protection Order Act came in to being.
One of the things that we have noticed through monitoring these cases over the last seven years is that it really has filled a gap and that over 90 percent of the litigants seeking these orders would not have qualified for protections under the previous laws that we had.
WOLF: Tell me a little bit about how your program is structured. The little bit I know about CourtWatch programs is that sometimes they're actually adversarial. People are going into the courtroom, they're watching, they're looking for problems, and they're taking, maybe one might say, an oppositional approach ready to criticize things that are going on there. Obviously, that is part of what you're doing. You're looking for constructive criticism. I understand that you have a more collaborative relationship with the court, that you've built a relationship that allows you to observe and offer input, but people in power are willing to listen and hear what you have to say.
JONES: Thanks. This is Laura again here, Rob. As we were starting our CourtWatch program, one of the things that we did first was to conduct a lot of informational interviews with key system personnel about what approach to take. We were fortunate to be able to tap into our agency's pre-existing relationship with stakeholders to the system to help identify who those key entities and people were to talk to.
As a result of those interviews, and also considering that our agency works with clients whose cases could also be impacted by our interactions with the system, we determined that the best approach was one that was transparent, and that we needed to, for lack of a better word, market our programs. Why should judicial officers buy in to our feedback and the information that we were providing?
When we started, and when we began sending volunteers into the courts, we sent an introductory letter to the court introducing the program, talking about the types of proceedings that our volunteers would be observing, and then how they would be identifiable to the court and what their purpose was.
As part of this letter, our purpose was marketed as a way to help to improve the court at no cost to the court. We also gave judges the option to opt in to receive confidential feedback that focused on procedural justice type issues: accessibility, treatment of parties, courtroom decorum, and the environment, etcetera. I think the largest pro of this approach is that it helps to facilitate collaboration and an ongoing dialog with the courts.
WOLF: That's interesting. You say that there's an option for confidential feedback, so there's two different kinds of feedback that you give? There's certain things that aren't necessarily confidential, and who are you sharing that with? When you talk about the confidential feedback, you mentioned procedural justice. Can you be a little specific? Maybe give some examples of the kind of feedback you're giving.
JONES: This is Laura, too, by the way. When we're talking about the confidential feedback, this is feedback that is given directly to individual judges who have opted in to get the feedback. I just want to say that we have 53 judges in King County Superior Court, and 74 percent of them have opted in to get this feedback.
When we talk about the feedback being framed in a way with procedural justice focus, it looks at basic things like audibility. Could the proceedings be heard in the courtroom? We've gotten feedback from volunteers that microphones weren't turned on. We're passing that along to the court. Things like introducing a calendar and what impact that might have for the parties who are sitting there waiting for their case to be called.
I think our feedback, to answer your question of not being confidential, I think that is more in the form of the reports that we've done, in the form of making recommendations for legislation. It's helped to inform education and outreach to the courts. That feedback is provided in that way.
WOLF: I guess I want to ask you a little bit more about procedural justice because it's become such a hot topic now in courtrooms across the country, this growing awareness of how important it is, the experience that litigants have in a courtroom. If people are interested, they could find out more on our website about it. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how it's emerged in your community as something important and something you're looking for, and particularly, why it's relevant in these sexual assault cases.
JONES: We didn't, from the outset, really set out to frame the observations in this as procedural justice. It's just how they emerged over time. What we were seeing is that so many of our observations were related to how the court could promote greater access for the parties, how they could promote information and set expectations, and how they could set up the proceedings in a way that appeared more neutral. It morphed into this procedural justice lens that we were looking at.
It's so important in these cases because I think court is an anxiety-provoking experience for most people. When you consider trauma, it magnifies that, too, and particularly when we're talking about the sexual assault protection order docket, we're talking about pro se or unrepresented litigants, too. It becomes very important to have procedural justice.
WOLF: Maybe give a little sense of how it works. You said 53 judges. Are all of them potentially handling sexual assault cases? How do you decide where you're going to go, when you're going to go, and how much information do you need before you write up a report? Do you go to observe the same judge a certain number of times before you write something up, or is it not really about a specific judge? Are you looking at more patterns, across the board patterns?
JONES: I think when we're talking about the reports and things like that, we're looking at more patterns and trends of behavior. The way that our court is structured, not all of the judges are hearing sex offense cases at any time. We have different rotations. Over the seven years, there have been judges that have been on a different rotation that have been rotated to hearing our cases. Mary can share a little bit more about how we identify proceedings that our volunteers will be attending to.
MARY LASKOWSKI: Hey Rob, this is Mary. Every day, I review all of the court calendars. We have two Superior Courts here in King County; one in Kent, Washington and the other one in Seattle. I review the calendars on a daily basis and identify the sexual assault cases, and then I assign them out for volunteer's shifts for the next day.
WOLF: Do you have people literally every day going out and observing? Is it that regular?
LASKOWSKI: It's about that regular. We have volunteers who are at both courthouses Monday through Wednesday, and then also all day on Friday as well.
WOLF: Your volunteers, who are your volunteers? Where do you find people who can do this, who want to do this, and how do you prepare them for this kind of work.
LASKOWSKI: This is Mary. Our volunteers are split 50/50. Half of volunteers are college students or graduate students. We have a handful of law students in the mix as well. The other half are either working professionals or recently retired adults. I think we're fortunate in King County that a lot of our large businesses encourage a lot of community stewardship. Working professionals are encouraged to volunteer in the Seattle community. We've been able to get some really great people onboard.
It's a pretty extensive interview and application process. We are in the very fortunate position that we have more volunteers who are interested than we have shifts available. Once the complete the application process, they go through an all-day eight-hour training. Subsequent to that, we do about a four-hour first shift orientation at the courthouse, and then we provide ongoing debriefing, feedback, and training opportunities through the King Count Sexual Assault Resource Center.
WOLF: Can you just paint a picture for me what it's like when a volunteer goes in the courtroom? Are they alone? Do they usually go as a team? Do they have certain forms? How do they record their observations?
LASKOWSKI: Depending on the volume of volunteers we have on any given day, we could have one or more volunteers observing the same hearing. They all come to court carrying the same signature bright yellow clipboards. We refer to them as our calling cards, that court staff can identify who our volunteers are, and know that they're associated with our CourtWatch program.
They record their observations using forms that we have prefabricated for them. We designed the forms to follow the flow of each hearing to the best of our ability. They have an opportunity to provide more narrative answers at the end of the forms after they've collected the data that we've requested of them. They type up their notes and observations and send them to me for review. They get entered into our database and our judicial feedback forms.
WOLF: There's no pretense. There's no secrecy here. You're not like a Secret Shopper going in.
Mary Laskowski: Absolutely not.
WOLF: It's clear who-
LASKOWSKI: That's part of the transparency that Laura mentioned earlier. All of our volunteers carry these neon yellow clipboards so everyone knows who they are and why they're there.
WOLF: Can you highlight for me some of the milestones, some of the achievements or impacts you feel the CourtWatch program has had in terms of informing the way the court system approaches these cases or in terms of legislation or policies?
JONES: Yes. We're just coming off of a big milestone. There was some new legislation that was passed earlier this year related to the sexual assault protection order statute. CourtWatch was very much involved with making recommendations. This was around how long orders could be granted for, and also burden of proof when a petitioner was trying to get the order renewed when it was about to expire.
Another example of legislative work was in 2013, we have a checkbox on our court monitoring form about service of process. What we were seeing was in about a third of the cases, service of process created an issue. This resulted in cases either being dismissed, the cases being continued in perpetuity or victims dropping out of the process because they just couldn't keep taking time off of work to come to court to get their order granted.
With that data, that it was an issue in a third of cases, we partnered with our state coalition of sexual assault programs and helped to lobby for change of that statute. Now there are alternative means of service available to victims of sexual assault.
WOLF: Just by service of process, you mean ...
JONES: Yes, thank you. How somebody gets notice of a lawsuit or a suit against them. How they get the notice and the petition and other legal documents.
WOLF: As you look at the data you've collected over these last seven years, have you seen a trend? Have you seen improvements in certain qualities or characteristics that you're measuring?
JONES: I think we've talked a little bit about some of the legislative changes that helped to promote some of the important changes in the process. I think where we've also been fortunate is that our state has a Gender in Justice Commission here. That has been a great forum to provide some of our information and feedback that has resulted in increased opportunities for judicial education and also resources for judicial officers. In 2013, the coalition was responsible for putting together a sex offense bench guide. That is currently being expanded now. I think there are just a lot of increased opportunities to provide more information.
WOLF: Are you saying the data you collected helped inform the creation of the bench guide?
JONES: Yes, and has been incorporated into different sections of that bench guide as well.
WOLF: Thank you so much Laura and Mary for taking the time to answer my questions about your CourtWatch program.
JONES: Thank you, Rob. This has been great.
LASKOWSKI: Thanks Rob.
WOLF: I have been speaking with Laura Jones, who is the CourtWatch manager, and Mary Laskowski who is the CourtWatch services and outreach coordinator with the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, which is in Renton, Washington, just outside of Seattle. We've been talking about what makes their CourtWatch program unique and how it works.
I'm Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I encourage you to subscribe to our podcast and to visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Of course, you can subscribe wherever you like to get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening.