Friday, July 22, 2016

Justice through Procedure: Increasing Public Trust and Fairness in our Courts

By Mohammed Alam

What is Procedural Justice?
Administering justice is rooted in the belief that the process will be fair. However, many trial and criminal courts across the country have acquired a bad reputation for being overly bureaucratic, dehumanizing, and difficult to understand. Research conducted by the Center for Court Innovation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance shows that, when defendants believe that the process is fair, they are more likely to comply with court rulings. Increasing courts’ transparency and related efforts to make them more accessible, engaging, and fair are hallmarks of procedural justice. Procedural justice can take many forms. In making signs and directions easier to understand and follow, court users are able to more easily navigate the building, which will lead to more defendants signing up for and completing their mandates. Proper communication in the courtroom has a significant impact: if a defendant does not understand what is going on in their case, they are less likely to trust the court process. Understanding the critical role of procedural justice in the criminal justice system, we undertook a comprehensive review here at Midtown to see how we can improve our practices.

Midtown’s Procedural Needs
Established in 1993 in a historic NYC courthouse, the Midtown Community Court (MCC) is an operating project of the Center for Court Innovation and one of the nation’s first “problem solving courts.” The last few years have seen the courthouse undergo substantial renovation, which has given us a natural opportunity to address issues of signage, navigability, and usability—all aspects of procedural justice. To take full advantage, we formed a committee with representatives from various departments within our court to bring a diversity of thought and a better understanding of procedural concerns. The committee of five includes Amanda Rivera, Senior Case Manager; Lauren Marker, Social Worker; Sonia Chowdhury, Resource Coordinator; Sebastian Bullock, Employment Outreach Specialist; and Mohammed Alam, External Affairs Manager. The committee began by analyzing all potential procedural issues at the Midtown Community Court and formulated a series steps to implement short- and long-term goals.

Our First Steps
During the first three months, we addressed and improved the very first interactions defendants have with our court. A court user’s first impression can color how they will react throughout the duration that they are in the building. Unlike some other courts, Midtown Community Court has many different programs, partnerships, and offices within the building. People might arrive here either to attend court, have sessions in our clinic, reschedule appointments, attend class in our fatherhood program, or do community service. Recognizing this, we made sure that court officers at the entrance have sufficient information about these details so that they can direct visitors and answer questions effectively. In addition, we addressed the issue to information availability in the courtroom. We have placed two large flat screen monitors which display a presentation that address most frequently asked questions and concerns that defendants may have. The presentation details the setup of the court, who the key players are and where they are stationed, in addition to rules of the room and resources for them to contact.

The Next Six Months
Over the course of the next six months, we worked to improve the signage and décor of the Midtown Community Court, using the framework of the Red Hook Community Justice Center as a model. Although Midtown Community Court is housed in a landmarked building from the 1880s with an impressive exterior façade, the interior is less harmonious. As such, the Procedural Justice Committee focused on interior issues regarding design, navigability, and user-friendliness. We replaced mismatched and outdated signs with temporary signage that is uniformly formatted. Now, there are visible signs as you first enter the building which bear accurate security instructions, rules of the courtroom, and directional signs. Visitors also see a full directory of the building in order to better understand what is located on each floor. We worked to open the floors that are accessed by clients and defendants so as to feel more welcoming. Our light-filled meeting and conference rooms all have large computers to display information and dry erase boards to utilize during counseling sessions. Our UPNEXT classroom has a state of the art interactive smart board in addition to a computer lab, allowing participants to have access to technology to assist in skill building and job placement. Lastly, we contacted all of our partner agencies and organizations for information and packets of resources to create a comprehensive resource wall.

Long-term Goals
The committee is now looking to our one-year goals. As part of the final phase of construction, we are working with a design firm on permanent signage that will solidify many of the temporary upgrades the committee has made. In addition, we hope to periodically host trainings for all staff members on topics that can improve the services they provide, including effective communication strategies, cultural competency, and trauma-informed practices. We are working towards translation of more key documents into more languages to make the delivery of information more inclusive.The last phase of our one-year goals is to actively engage with participants, clients, and defendants through conversations and surveys. This process will help us compile and analyze their feedback and determine the effectiveness of the upgrades and changes we have made to the procedures of the court. 

Based on their feedback, we will be able to adjust and further improve on the flow of information, the navigability, and the administrative process of the court to be more welcoming, understandable, and procedurally fair.