JIL Goes to Court

Justice Innovation Lab
13 min readJun 13, 2024

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Photo by JIL Data & Web Engineer Joanie Weaver

During a December JIL team meeting, we determined that though we spend every day working with criminal justice data and criminal justice agencies, most of our staff have not spent time actually observing the system at work. As such, we decided to hold an observation day for staff to go and observe some part of the system. We didn’t place any restrictions on what part of the system staff could observe — everything from a ride-along with a cop to visiting a prison were on the table. Staff were asked to then then write 2–4 paragraphs on their experience based on the following questions:

  • What is the environment/atmosphere of the room?
  • Are you surprised by anything you observe? Does the activity you’re observing seem obviously criminal justice related?
  • Does what you observe align with what you expected?
  • Does the observed process give you more or less faith in our criminal justice system?
  • How does what you observed affect how you think JIL should operate?

The below observations are not meant to be a treatise on any part of the criminal justice system, rather the point is to provide a look into a system that relatively few Americans engage with through the lens of people working on the system, every day, from a data-informed perspective.

Lily

I observed both civil court and criminal court in Chicago, the former by myself and the latter with Chicago Appleseed, a local court-watching organization. To start, there were stark differences in the accessibility of the two courts for a great deal of Chicagoans. Civil court is located in the heart of downtown and off of many transit lines whereas my commute to criminal court, seated next to the Cook County jail, required multiple buses and transfers. Personnel were friendly and helpful in civil court, whereas criminal court felt tense, with personnel growing frustrated at visitors for not moving quickly enough. Chicago Appleseed advises court observers not to visit the criminal courthouse in groups for volunteers’ own safety. In both courthouses, visitors had to go through security similar to TSA (i.e., belongings on a conveyor belt and walk through a scanner). When I visited the criminal courthouse, however, I was required to provide my ID and check my turned-off cell phone into a locker and was patted down after walking through the scanner.

My volunteer group was kicked out of one criminal courtroom by a perturbed judge for “moving around too much,” and we were questioned by his deputy as to what we were doing there upon exiting. We observed several cases in criminal bond court, which had a more visitor-friendly deputy, and I was jarred by the large bail amounts being set even for nonviolent offenses. It seems to me that if someone without income shoplifts soap and toilet paper, they should be connected to resources rather than face jail time. My time in criminal court reinforced my belief that the criminal legal system is ill-equipped to address issues such as poverty and addiction, and made me reflect on how JIL might compel actors in the criminal legal system to recognize where people may be better served by resources outside of the system.

In civil court, I observed traffic, most of which consisted of status updates and continuances. While the docket was long, each line was addressed in quick succession. I was heartened to see the judge sentence a defendant with a second DUI to a treatment program and community service (along with a license suspension) instead of jail time, and I hope JIL can promote more rehabilitative solutions. There were many plea deals that were arbitrary in nature and made me wonder how a system with such a high volume of cases can center justice. On my way out, I got into an elevator with a newly married couple and their celebrating families, and was struck by the array of life and legal matters that occur in this building on any given day.

Jared

I am not a stranger to criminal courthouses. Over the course of my 15-year career as a prosecutor, I practiced in over 30 different jurisdictions across the United States, from South Carolina and Louisiana to Kansas and Kentucky to California and Hawaii. I handled cases as far away as the U.S. Territories of Guam and American Samoa. I have seen many different — but ultimately quintessentially American — courthouses.

For my court watching experience, I decided to visit a different country’s court system, and to do it in a language I didn’t understand. I wanted to observe without the benefit of (most) language. So, I visited the criminal court in Sherbrooke, Quebec, a predominantly French speaking city of approximately 250,000. 86% of residents speak French as their first language.

Court hearings were held exclusively in French, which I do not speak. Though I have heard “foreign languages” spoken in court many times, I always had access to interpreters. This was the first time I did not. I was curious how much of the proceedings I would understand.

I pulled up to the courthouse, a simple, but distinguished brick building. Both the exterior and interior shared a similar aesthetic to the archetypical American courthouse.

Though visually similar to what I have experienced in the past, the differences from American courts jumped out as soon as I walked through the front door: there was no security — no metal detectors, no X-ray machines. I walked right into the lobby, asked for the criminal courtrooms, and went to the third floor. Of the scores of courts I had visited over the years, I had never had this experience.

The second thing that jumped out was that virtually everyone in the courthouse was white. According to the last census, 88.7% of Sherbrooke residents are white, while 9.6% were visible minorities and 1.7% were Indigenous. There are similar demographics in numerous communities in the U.S., though if you visit their courthouses, the defendants from communities of color will almost certainly be disproportionately represented. In most county/city-level courthouses in the U.S., the courts are overwhelmingly people of color, generally those living at the lowest socioeconomic strata.

There were two courtrooms with criminal cases: one with about 10 cases on the docket, and another with a single case in trial. I started in the higher volume courtroom, which best I could tell was having “status hearings” on pending cases. The cases were processed efficiently, and people spoke to each other in professional and generally welcoming tones. None of the defendants (all white) were detained, and all seemed relatively relieved to leave after a seeming straight forward check in. It was a bureaucratic, efficient, and humane process.

I went to check out the other courtroom, which was relatively full with observers, including a few journalists.

The judge sat at the front on an elevated bench. In front of the judge and slightly lowered was a semicircular desk with the prosecution at one end, and the defense at the other end. Everyone was dressed in black robes (no wigs).

A Black man, who appeared to be a recent African immigrant, spoke from the designated position in the center of the courtroom. He spoke through an interpreter. I didn’t understand his language either.

I wasn’t sure what he was accused of, but he seemed nervous. And scared.

He was questioned by the judge and the prosecutor and the defense counsel. The proceeding seemed polite and benign. The man seemed to be having trouble articulating his points, and it was impossible for me to assess his credibility. I imagine he was having a similar experience as I was — unable to understand exactly what was happening in this regal courtroom.

When the proceedings took a break, I asked one of the journalists to tell me what had happened. The man speaking through the translator was the victim in some sort of dangerous driving case. He, his wife, and baby child had been hit by a driver — a white man — who was allegedly texting and driving. I had misidentified the victim for the accused.

I thought a lot about how I could get such a fundamental fact so wrong. Certainly, the lack of access to language played a huge part. The experience of lacking necessary language skills certainly felt more empathy for the thousands of people who every day must navigate the complex American justice system without fluency in English.

But, I was also cognizant about assumptions that I had made about the interplay between race, crime, and punishment, and how deeply that runs in the American process. By observing the process in Sherbrooke, I was reminded that we must rethink many of the assumptions that undergird how we do justice in the U.S.

Jess

I attended the April 2024 meeting of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board, held in the Allegheny County Courthouse. The board is composed of the county chief executive, two judges of the court of common pleas, the county sheriff, the county controller, the president of county council, and three citizen members. These board members are responsible for ensuring the jail is operated in accordance with regulations and laws, and for overseeing the health and safekeeping of incarcerated individuals.

The meeting I attended had many moments of tension, but also some hopefulness stemming from the presence of new board members. In particular, there had been years of controversy due to the previous county chief executive never attending board meetings and instead sending a designee to act in his place. The newly-elected chief executive, Sara Innamorato, attended this meeting and multiple community members voiced their appreciation for her presence. However, the majority of public commenters expressed dissatisfaction with jail conditions and board operations. Each public commenter was given exactly three minutes to convey their concerns, which included disappointment in the required brevity of their statements and feeling like the board lacked consideration for the public. I found it disconcerting that public commenters gave heartfelt pleas for the health and safety of those incarcerated while the board remained largely unresponsive.

One particular point of contention was that new bylaws for the board were being voted on at the meeting, but members of the public were only handed paper copies of the proposed bylaws as the meeting was starting, despite having been told that they would be able to review them in advance. Several public commenters requested a delay in the vote as a result, which was denied. At one point, someone was removed from the meeting by officers after expressing disappointment that the board voted to allow a designee for some board members.

While there were definitely adversarial moments between board members and the public, there were also tense moments between the board and jail representatives, as board members advocated for more transparency in various aspects of jail operations. Two members of the board had been incarcerated in the past, and one in particular was a fierce and vocal advocate for the humane treatment of those held in the jail. Overall, my experience attending this meeting made me appreciate just how important transparency and community involvement are in ensuring that people are being treated fairly in the criminal legal system.

Joanie

I went to observe some of San Francisco Superior Court’s collaborative courts. Specifically, I watched Drug Court, and then, I watched Behavioral Health Court.

Overall, the atmosphere in drug court felt tense and slightly depressing — the room was old, the clerks seemed very preoccupied, the guard at the front had a serious, stern look. That said, it also felt supportive. I heard the judge check in about name pronunciation, ask defendants if they have any questions, ask if they’ve heard anything about the treatment programs they were getting placements with, and tell them good luck as they were leaving. Additionally, there were several family members/friends in court supporting their loved ones.

Behavioral health court was much more depressing. One defendant who joined over Zoom from his current treatment placement wanted to know when he would get the electronic monitor removed, while the judge answered that it will come off soon and to keep up the good work, I felt the question was still unanswered — how many days longer will he be required to wear an electronic monitor and could this have been told to the defendant when he asked? One elderly female defendant who was brought in from the county jail in chains had a hard time understanding what was going on in her case — she frequently loudly interrupted asking for explanations and complaining that she hated her public defender. Unfortunately, the prosecution and defense had still not aligned on a treatment plan for her, so her case was continued. Another female defendant who had been patiently waiting in the back for her case to come up, started talking to herself and then when her case was finally reviewed at the end, the prosecutor wanted her remanded, with strong opposition from the defense. The judge agreed to remand. She was immediately handcuffed and escorted out. I was surprised at how quickly and forcefully the police came up behind her without even stating what they were doing. This was the depressing end of behavioral health court. I came away with a lot of respect for the people doing this hard work day after day and feeling like this still isn’t justice or the best thing for public safety.

I was surprised by all of the inefficiencies I noticed. Both courts were held hybridly with both Zoom and in person attendees. There were a lot of technical issues getting the microphones to work from the various different courtroom microphones. Many of the defendants in drug court that I saw today came from the county jail — it did not seem like much progress happened on their case (often it seemed like the defense needed to file a motion before the case could continue) and it felt inefficient to me to have used up everyone’s time to bring the defendants to court.

I think we should encourage our partners to do more to collect and share data about the benefits of mental health and addiction treatment programs as alternative sentences. Specifically, not just data about referrals to diversion and the success/termination rates currently collected, but also how long defendants wait in jail until they start those programs, whether there are differences in success rates depending on the lengths of jail stays, and determining how to evaluate the differential public safety impact of these programs compared to incarceration.

Kevin

For my observation, I attended an event for Restorative Response Baltimore — an organization that “provides ways for people to collectively and effectively prevent and resolve conflicts and crime”.

The most evident observation was the involvement of multiple organizations supporting their mission. From the Maryland Office of the Public Defender to the Langston Hughes CBRC (Community, Business, & Resource Center), people were interested in building stronger communities and decreasing punitive approaches to crime. The criminal legal system tends to be siloed, so it is challenging to get a holistic view of a person and the system itself. By focusing on community building and conflict resolution, the likelihood of involvement in the system is mitigated.

“Restorative” or “transformative” justice approaches have proven to be effective alternatives to incarceration. The work of Restorative Response Baltimore fits into these approaches by helping children referred to the criminal legal system.They do this by attempting to address, but not perpetuate harm. In practice, this means that a victim might help determine what actions would be necessary to reflect accountability from an offender and prevent future occurrence. The basic idea in “restorative” justice practices is simply to treat people like you would want a family member or yourself to be treated. Imagine your child, niece, or nephew stealing from a drug store. Would you want them arrested? Consider the collateral consequences of that action (e.g. having to disclose on job or college applications) and the cost of such an overreaction.

The focus for someone who caused harm should be accountability, not the avoidance of punishment. The current criminal legal system only encourages people to avoid punishment. Beyond the inherent avoidance of accepting responsibility, the system doesn’t address any underlying causes. If you want safer communities, focus on the humanity of others and trust victims to know what can make them whole.

Rory

For my observation day, I chose to attend a regular felony docket day at the DC superior court. Docket days are the majority of court days and are not trials. Rather, the day consists of checking in on the current state of many cases. This includes defendants arguing for release from jail while they await a trial or plea, defendants that are out on bail checking in with the court, prosecutors and defense lawyers discussing the mandatory sharing of evidence (discovery), and some defendants pleading guilty. The most striking element in watching the proceedings was how little the defendant was involved while the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel worked through pleas and set a continuous stream of future hearings without consulting the defendant.

During the time I watched, about one third of the defendants were entering guilty pleas which involved a rehearsed three to five minute spiel from the judge to the defendant and prosecutor

  • Judge: “Has anyone offered you a guarantee of anything in exchange for pleading guilty?”
  • Defendant: “No.”
  • Judge: “Do you understand that by pleading guilty you forgo your right to appeal this decision…”

I was struck by just how much the judge had to say and how the defendant’s answers reminded me of mindlessly clicking ‘accept’ through online contracts. Having completed the formalities of recognizing the defendant’s Constitutional rights, the process returned to a discussion without regard to the defendant.

With a plea accepted, the next step is to sentence the defendant. To do so, a separate hearing is ‘needed’, requiring setting a sentencing date according to the judge’s calendar. For this judge, his next available dates were in September — over 3 months from when I was watching. During that time, the defendant would be in jail. For all the cases I witnessed, the defendant was pleading guilty to a felon in possession of a firearm with a one-year mandatory minimum sentence. As such, the defendant, even if sentenced right after pleading, would be in jail or prison during those 3 months regardless. Despite that reality, I was struck by how the system delays decisions at the expense of those most impacted by the system — defendants, victims, and those related to both.

In addition to defendants accepting pleas only to have to wait to find out what their punishment would be, I watched one defendant and the 10 people in attendance to support him passively have to accept a 10-day delay in his bail hearing. There, the defense counsel had filed a bail motion the night before at 10 PM, and the prosecutor requested time to review and respond to the motion in writing. This set off another sequence of calendaring between attorneys to find a time to argue the motion. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that the right to a speedy trial seemed to have no place in this world of coordinating overworked calendars. At no point was the defendant consulted about this delay in possible release and he and those there to support him were clearly frustrated at the delay without an inkling of thought to how that delay would affect all of them.

With many of our partners, we frequently discuss how backed up the system is, causing long delays that do little to serve anyone involved. Watching court for a day was a striking reminder of how that backlog has grown, its effect on the victims, defendants, and families involved, and how little agency those most affected seem to have in the entire process. In our work, we try to bring these issues to light through data, and I can’t help but see the link between what we find in the data and what I witnessed.

For more information about Justice Innovation Lab, visit www.JusticeInnovationLab.org.

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Justice Innovation Lab

Justice Innovation Lab builds data-informed, community-rooted solutions for a more equitable, effective, and fair justice system.