@ the Center: Moving the needle on public trust in the courts

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AUGUST 8, 2018

Moving the needle on public trust in the courts 

Apply for the Public Engagement
Pilot Project

The Community Engagement in the State Courts Initiative’s advisory board is soliciting interest from courts that want to participate in the pilot project. The selected courts will receive as much as $30,000 in funding, which requires a one-to-one in-kind or financial match; technical assistance from NCSC; and an independent evaluation of the project. 

For more information email commengagement@ncsc.org or call (703) 841-5624.

For decades, courts have approached the issue of public trust and confidence with a “to-know-us-is-to-love-us” attitude. Courts developed civics education campaigns, created public service announcements, and drafted speeches for judges to give at civic events. 

The result has been disappointing. “The needle hasn’t moved,” NCSC President Mary McQueen said of attitudes toward the justice system. A 1999 public opinion survey by the Hearst Corporation found that 70 percent of African-American respondents think that they, as a group, get “somewhat worse” or “far worse” treatment from the courts. A 2015 poll showed essentially the same result: 68 percent of African Americans believe our courts don’t provide equal justice to all. In addition, a 2017 NCSC survey revealed that only 58 percent of Americans believe the term “fair and impartial” describes courts well. 

“We are going to move the needle,” McQueen said enthusiastically at a recent meeting of the Community Engagement in the State Courts Initiative in Washington, D.C.

Chaired by Chief Judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, the initiative is establishing six pilot projects to design and implement a public engagement program to improve trust between courts and minority or low-income communities and to try to eliminate a disparity in a specific problem area, such as jury selection and sentencing.

The Public Engagement Pilot Project will build on information gathered and analyzed from a three-city listening tour in which judges met with community members to hear about their experiences with – and their impressions of – the courts. The sessions, broadcast on PBS titled “Courting Justice,” were held in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Little Rock, Ark. After the listening tours, surveys were sent to court and civic leaders. Eleven major themes – divided into three categories – surfaced from the tour and the surveys, and will serve as guidance for the pilot projects.

  • Issues based on how judges make decisions
    • Lack of awareness about the realities of minority communities
    • Implicit bias on the part of judges
    • Lack of diversity on the bench

  • Perceived unfairness in the court system
    • Financial and other barriers to accessing the courts and attorneys
    • Court funding dependent on fines, fees, and bail
    • Bias in the plea-bargaining process
    • Lack of diversity on juries

  • Outcomes of judicial decisions
    • Bias in sentencing outcomes
    • Failure to hold police accountable
    • Impact of sanctions on employment opportunities
    • Bias in imposing legal financial obligations
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Interpreter training on domestic violence and sexual assault

There are few opportunities for court interpreters to obtain fundamental knowledge and insights about domestic violence and sexual assault that will enhance their ability to help Limited English Proficient (LEP) survivors make their voices heard in the civil and criminal justice systems. NCSC, with support from the Office on Violence Against Women, has released Interpreting for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases, an interactive online course for court and legal interpreters and other justice system professionals. This free introductory course is available here.

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