In the last 15-20 years, court systems across the United States have slowly begun their own outreach in order to educate the public about their structure and their work. And there is good reason for the courts to take on this mission. The loss of robust civics education in many communities, combined with the flattening and sharpening effects of social media (which combine to eliminate much of the essential context and nuance from stories about the courts), means that court and judges are at increased risk of caricature.
One of the best programs originated in Colorado. Called “Our Courts Colorado,” it sends state judges to speak to schools and community groups about what exactly it is that the courts do. The program tries simultaneously to demystify the judicial system and to educate people about the important work of the courts.
The idea is spreading, slowly but surely, to other common law countries. New Zealand recently unveiled its own nine-minute video describing how the courts work. The video (also called “Our Courts”) is a little dry, but it has many subtle strengths. It shows judges in ordinary business dress, which humanizes them. It clearly explains the different levels within the court system, and the responsibilities of each court. And the video is available in three languages: English, Maori, and Mandarin.
Courts increasingly need to be their own advocates, and that includes assuring basic public familiarity with their work. This is a nice step forward in New Zealand.
A new program, launched in the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, will provide books for minors to read while waiting for their court hearings. The first shelf of donated books is now available in Brooklyn’s Adolescent and Young Adult Diversion Court.
Previously, residents were “arbitrarily prohibited” from reading books in court, the nonprofit said. The Legal Aid Society worked to get the pilot program in place for over two years with the help of the Office of Court Administration, Judge Craig Walker — who presided over APY — and others, the organization said.
Books already provided by Penguin [Random] House for the program include “Decoded” by Jay-Z, “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah, “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy and several by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“What better way to help stimulate a mind in a positive way than to provide a book,” said Hon. Craig S. Walker, presiding judge of the Criminal Term Youth Part, Kings County Supreme Court. “It may seem like a small and meaningless gesture to some, but if we want these young people to aspire to do better, we need to provide them with the right tools in order for them to achieve their goals. That starts right there, in the Courtroom.”
This sounds like a great program, and kudos to those visionary enough to cut through the red tape to make it happen. One would think that eliminating the “arbitrar[y] prohibit[ion]” of reading books while waiting for a hearing would have been an easy call.
The first batch of donated books is understandably designed to appeal to the court’s users and stimulate their interest. But some of the cited authors have histories of anti-Semitic comments and other troubling behavior. And the program seems to be missing an opportunity to expose the same readers to great works of American civics and legal fiction. I hope that as the program expands, it will come to include more books like To Kill a Mockingbird and David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, and relatively less Jay Z and Trevor Noah.
The Denver Post has a great story on the successes of a problem-solving court in Eagle, Colorado. The court was created seven years ago by a state judge, working in tandem with the local Masonic Lodge, to provide a new approach to individuals facing drug and alcohol addiction. Rather than jail time, first-time drug and alcohol offenders are given a chance to work toward sobriety. The expectations are high, but offenders who choose that route are supported throughout the program, and the Masons provide scholarships to some program graduates to facilitate vocational and professional training. While not everyone makes it through the program, those who do are better off in immeasurable ways.
State courts across the country have recognized over the last two decades that not all legal infractions are best resolved through traditional criminal justice. This is a nod to reality, not leniency — and it is a nice example of the courts reinventing themselves (in part) to best serve the needs of their constituencies.