by Orissa Arend
Increased attention and media focus were recently drawn to fake subpoenas, an unfair bail system and the sometimes traumatic handling of victims as a result of observations by Court Watch NOLA workers and volunteers.
We all know abuses are happening. I hear plenty of hair-raising stories at Justice and Beyond, a coalition of organizers that meets each Monday at 5 pm at Christian Unity Baptist Church. Some of us go to court with people like the young female artist who rescued a two-month-old baby from the arms of a woman being harassed by the police. The young artist was charged with assaulting a police officer.
That’s one way to learn about the justice system. But, by then, it’s often too late. The genius of Court Watch is that it documents what is being said and done in court rather than reacting to an arrest or a mistake. Court Watch educates and engages the public and then promotes change. Because this information is data-driven and nonpartisan, it is a powerful and effective advocacy tool.
And I am now training to become a Court Watch NOLA volunteer. I’ll be writing a monthly Court Watch column in The New Orleans Tribune as I climb a steep learning curve and try to make myself useful.
Some of the things Court Watch volunteers are asked to assess are easy to answer: Did the judge show up on time? If late, did she/he explain why? Others are more complex. Terms like “joint continuance,” “nolle prossed,” sidebars and discovery materials – learning about these will require more than the excellent eight-hour Court Watch prep course. But Executive Director Simone Levine and volunteer coordinator Trezell Ragas promise that experienced volunteers will hold newbies’ hands until we can walk into a courtroom on our own wearing our own badge. We will observe for three hours, fill out charts and answer up to 90 questions depending on the court happenings of the day. To fulfill our volunteer commitment, we’ll do that eight times a year.
The justice system touches all of us. It is that thin membrane between order and chaos, between freedom and responsibility. We pay for it, elect people to implement it, and then trust, mistrust, ignore, or avoid it when we can. Having trained citizens keep an informed, impartial eye on the justice system is a brilliant idea. It demands accountability of public officials, increases fairness in the system, and acts as an objective agent for reform.
Court Watch NOLA was founded in 2007 as a grassroots volunteer effort to bring greater transparency and efficiency to our criminal courts. Today over 100 trained volunteers observe and record what they see. Then the small staff of four compiles results and publishes regular reports. Nothing fluffy here.
I’m embarrassed to say that as a mediator and social worker, I didn’t even know what Magistrate Court does, how important it is. That’s where pre-trial release and bail are initially determined for all felony and misdemeanor cases. In 2016 and 2017 Court Watchers viewed 1,099 defendants’ first appearances and then made recommendations for a stronger, evidence-based pre-trial system, a system that will better serve both the public and the accused.
Court Watch also affirms positive activity taking place in the courts as well.
In December, Court Watchers are learning about rape kits and what rape victims go through after they report the crime. For more information or to sign up to be a volunteer for Court Watch, e-mail Ragas at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 504-715- 0519.
We all have our work cut out for us. Passivity is not an option. The old hymn “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” comes to mind this season. And may the Lord help us all as we stumble into this brand new year.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, member of Justice and Beyond and Court Watch volunteer. You can reach her at email@example.com