Cassandra Aquart
(Re)Thinking Tech
Published in
3 min readJun 14, 2018


E-learning: A Digital Community Service Option for Resolving a Civil Summons in NYC

Photo Credit: Center for Court Innovation

Generally, when someone in New York City receives a civil summons for a quality of life offense such as strutting down the street with an open container of alcohol or blasting Cardi B at an unreasonable decimal level, they have to pay a fine.

But not everyone can afford to pay the fine, even if it’s a modest amount.

Today, thanks to the Civil Alternatives Program, which was created by the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016 (CJRA), instead of paying a fine, people who are strapped for cash (or choose not to pay) can perform community service such as e-learning, a module developed by the Center for Court Innovation and Blenderbox with input from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with the judicial system (hopefully not you!) knows that it’s not always a pleasant experience. For some people, the process is overwhelming: they don’t know where to go when they arrive, they may encounter an employee who they feel is unfriendly, they speak a language other than English, or they may have to wait in a long line.

Fortunately, Civil Alternatives’ e-learning offers people an entirely different experience: one that is engaging and respectful. And so far, it’s working. “I’m going to walk out of here in a very good mood,” proclaimed one person.

So, what’s special? This e-learning creates an experience similar to a group class by asking users how they feel, incorporating fun, interactive games, and using positive language that has a respectful, friendly tone.

Photo Credit: Center for Court Innovation

Further, it doesn’t only focus on what people did wrong. Civil Alternatives’ e-learning provides people with information about OATH and the judicial process. It also provides information about how common quality of life offenses such as biking in the park on a non-designated path are now civil offenses under the CJRA and how these offenses impact the community. The information often comes as a surprise to some people: “I didn’t know that it was illegal to ride bikes in the park unless there are designated bike lanes. And I’m a biker,” exclaimed another person.

Photo Credit: Center for Court Innovation

What’s more, at the end of the module, people can find resources on topics such as education and careers if they feel uncomfortable sharing their needs with their facilitator during intake.

Besides providing a unique experience and valuable information, e-learning offers other benefits. For example, the platform is currently offered in multiple languages and “[it] speeds up the process of resolving a summons because it can be administered right away,” observed a staff member. The module’s digital platform eliminates any waiting time by allowing users to start the module anytime whereas with a group session, you have to wait until everyone arrives to begin.

However, e-learning is not for everyone. For example, during a group class, there may be an opportunity to get to know the participants better and delve more deeply into their needs. Further, people who need help reading or are not tech savvy may prefer an in-person session.

To date, users are responding well to the module and the goals of e-learning are being met: creating a positive experience, educating users on the process, and informing them how their actions impact society. Thus, as criminal justice professionals continue to develop innovative technologies, it’s important to remember technology can be a powerful tool to help change people’s perception of the system, inform them about the process, and create a positive, respectful experience between the community and the judicial system.

For a demo of Civil Alternatives’ e-learning, please watch this short video:

Video Credit: Center for Court Innovation

To learn more about e-learning, contact the Center for Court Innovation at