Jun. 15, 2021
Judicial outreach beats COVID: Transitions to virtual platforms
COVID-19 restrictions required adaption in all walks of life, particularly in public forums. The justice system learned to adapt in many ways including in its outreach to the public -- it changed them in ways that will make judicial outreach stronger
COVID-19 restrictions required adaption in all walks of life, particularly in public forums. The justice system learned to adapt in many ways including in its outreach to the public -- it changed them in ways that will make judicial outreach stronger.
Judicial outreach refers to organized efforts by courts to educate the public about the work of judges. It is recognized as an official judicial function. California adopted this standard for judicial administration in 1999: "Judicial participation in community outreach activities should be considered an official judicial function to promote public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice."
The American Bar Association in revising its Model Code of Judicial Conduct in 2003 added to its Canon 1.2 (defining a judge's personal behavior) this comment: "A judge should initiate and participate in community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice."
Outreach programs previously were structured so judges met with live audiences. These programs have become defined by their audiences: programs designed for school audiences; programs for adult audiences; and still other programs to acquaint young adults, including minorities, with careers in the justice system.
Courts in learning how to use virtual platforms for judicial outreach programs discovered an upside. Judges are effective presenters to live audiences about the work of the courts, but judicial time is limited. Judges are the most limiting resource needed for successful outreach programs. By appearing remotely, judges will be able to reach larger audiences, and do so more often.
The California Judges Association in 2019 resolved to present every several years a Judicial Outreach Award to identify, recognize and promote judicial outreach programs. The CJA wanted the award to be given for effective judicial outreach to be demonstrated in responses to the selection criteria. The CJA Foundation committed to giving a $1,000 cash grant to the award-winning program. As fate would have it, the outreach programs that could be considered were those that survived the pandemic restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19 in years 2020 and 2021.
CJA kicked off a competition for the inaugural award in January 2021. CJA asked courts with an award-eligible outreach program to submit an application on the Survey Monkey website. To hurry up the process the award committee also contacted outreach programs to get applications. The application process used a Survey Monkey format to obtain standardized and, therefore, comparable response data. That process also minimized the need for staff time by permitting committee members to view the responses online. The Survey Monkey form requested answers to 17 questions. These were the core questions:
• Audience(s) to which the outreach program is presented;
• Subject Matter that is presented through the outreach program;
• Step-by-step procedure used to "build" an audience for the program;
• Role of court staff in organizing/presenting the program;
• All calendar dates when the program was presented;
• Number of judges/commissioners who participated in the program;
• Surveys from audience participants; ratings received;
• Court resources devoted to the program, and estimated cost.
Materials developed for outreach programs could be submitted to a CJA Dropbox.
The award committee nominated three programs to receive the award. The CJA board is to make the final selection. Each nominated program uses the internet to present a virtual outreach program. Each program addressed a different virtual audience; and each had special strengths. These three programs nominated to the CJA board were:
Teen Court is a youth diversion program in which teenagers charged with a misdemeanor, infraction or rule violation are judged in an evidentiary trial by a peer group. Minors who graduate from Teen Court say they were profoundly affected by the experience and motivated to improve their behavior. Courts learned how to present Teen Court remotely -- by permitting the numerous individual participants to meet and interact over a virtual platform.
Judges in the Classroom is a collaboration between judges and teachers to present standards-based lesson plans to teach the fundamentals of the justice system to students. Judges appear in the classroom remotely and participate with the teacher in presenting the lesson plan and answering questions. The remote capability is critical: if judges are to be available to all schools, that can only be done state-wide over a virtual platform.
Virtual Townhalls is a technology-enabled program that offers courts an opportunity to provide information and to obtain feedback about current justice issues from the community. The courts in one California county used a virtual platform to convene townhalls to discuss bias and racism in the justice system in the aftermath to the murder of George Floyd.
Teen Court functions as an actual court. The minor defendant, advised by a parent/guardian, is given the opportunity to have his/her guilt to a nonviolent offense decided by a jury of peers and to be sentenced to a rehabilitation plan recommended by the peer jury. Judges supervise the proceedings; the defendant's compliance with the rehabilitation plan is supervised by the Probation Department. The minor can have the conviction removed from the public record upon successful completion of the rehabilitation plan.
Teen Court requires a substantial time commitment from students who must be instructed to perform their roles as jury members, clerks, bailiffs and counsel teams and also from judges and attorneys to oversee the Teen Court trials. Students in Teen Court programs learn how to participate in the justice system. They must exercise their critical thinking to decide issues of criminal responsibility, and, if guilt is found, to create a sentencing recommendation to achieve restorative justice. The Teen Court jury must devise a creative sentencing that will lead the defendant to recognize and learn from his/her mistakes. The sentencing options can include participation in academic tutoring, professional counseling, attending after-school programs, mentoring, community service and letters of apology.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court sponsors Teen Courts in 45 high schools. (Teen Court is offered by many trial courts in California and in other states, too.) Before the pandemic, over 100 judges presided over live Teen Court sessions, typically hearing two trials in one afternoon each month. Teen Courts are supported by many justice partners. These include the nonprofit (and fund-raising) Parents, Educators & Students in Action, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office, the County Probation Department, and law students and college students who have volunteered to be proctors in the Teen Court trials. Teen Courts, on the school side, are supported by administrators, teachers and staff. PESA provides training for Teen Court to the judges, proctors, advisors and students at each school participating in Teen Court. Teen Court is included in the high school curriculum, and students receive credit for their participation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed high schools in March 2020, Teen Court quickly transitioned to a Zoom platform to communicate with students from home. The transition has worked remarkably well. Zoom provides multiple breakout rooms with easy movement between them. Students log in using their personal devices or school computers. Judges log in from their courtroom or personal computers. An advantage of the virtual program is that a judge can "attend" and participate in a high school-based Teen Court anywhere in the County.
The LASC staff or PESA staff act as the Zoom host. The defendant minor, and his/her parent/guardian, and a case worker/probation officer are placed in a breakout room. The student jurors and audience are in another breakout room. At the beginning of the Teen Court session, the host places the minor, parent/guardian, the case worker/probation officer and the judge in a breakout room. The judge informs the minor of the nature of the proceedings and answers any question from the minor or parent/guardian. After this "arraignment" they are moved to the main room to begin the trial.
During the trial, audience members and school personnel are asked to turn their cameras off, thus removing them from the monitor, leaving only the jurors, the minor defendant, and the judge visible on the monitor.
The "chat function" is used so that the proctors can communicate with the student jurors to assist them with legal issues without disrupting the trial itself. With some Teen Court formats the jury members can ask questions of witnesses. A proctor then might respond to a student inquiry by chatting back "what are the elements of this crime?" or "what testimony was relevant to proving the point?"
Once the testimony is received, and all jury questions are answered, the jurors are instructed as to the legal elements applicable to the charges. The student jury is provided with written jury instructions and a special verdict. The jury is then moved into a breakout room to deliberate. While the jury is deliberating, the judicial officers meet with and answer questions from the student audience. When the jury returns with a verdict, each juror is polled on his/her answer to the questions on the verdict form, and the judge keeps track of the answers.
In Los Angeles County 157 Teen Court trials were conducted remotely in the year 2020. Over 100 bench officers participated as Teen Court judges.
Judges in the Classroom
Judges in the Classroom, or JIC, is a joint program of the California chief justice and California's superintendent of education. The superintendent's support ensures the program will be utilized in public schools state-wide.
Under JIC, judges collaborate with the teacher to present a civics lesson. JIC's website serves as a virtual meeting place for teachers and judges. Teachers can use the website to find a judge to visit their classroom. Lesson plans can be downloaded from the website. The lesson plans are standards-based: the scripts have been vetted by teacher committees appointed by the Superintendent. Various lesson plans are available for use from the third through twelfth grades. The lesson plans use scripts, playlets and handouts to educate students about the justice system, covering such topics as: government's three branches; the adoption (and enforcement) of rules of social behavior (laws); the Constitution and Bill of Rights; the use of a trial to test evidence; and the role of judges. Variations in the script may be improvised by the teacher and the judge. Some judges provide their own power points for the class discussion.
The sign-up process is online. Teachers submit a form to request a judge; participating judges indicate their availability. Some courts provide a staff coordinator to scout for judges to respond to a teacher's particular request, for instance, for a Spanish-speaking judge. The judge will contact the teacher to discuss the lesson plan and agree to a date for the judge's participation. The pre-meeting with the teacher, even though by telephone, is important to a successful outreach program. The teachers, after the class, are required to provide an evaluation.
JIC is designed to be offered to schools in the entire state. The chief justice's committee tested the program with in-person judge visits to classrooms in Butte and San Diego Counties. When COVID-19 closed the schools, the program was transitioned to using a virtual platform. Over the past year, all JIC programs have been presented by judges appearing remotely over a virtual platform that made them visible to students (who themselves are attending school over a virtual platform) and to allow them to be able to see and to interact with the students.
JIC today is being presented in schools in 13 counties. The program has signed up more than 100 judges to make virtual presentations. The program is expected to continue to expand. Teacher responses to the virtual JIC have been favorable. One teacher commented: "Thank you so much to the program and Judge Dhanidina for the awesome opportunity my students had. My students were engaged and actively listening to the information being provided and explained by [the] Judge. It truly was a wonderful experience for my students, so much so that they continue to ask questions on the subject and whether we will receive another visit. The subject matter that was covered ... was aligned to our standards. The visit enhanced my students' understanding of the subject. Students were engaged in critical thinking and were eager participants with thought provoking questions."
Responses from judge participants likewise have been favorable. One San Diego judge wrote: "It was a very positive experience. I started with a virtual tour of the courtroom, which students of all ages seemed to like. The Riley materials are excellent, particularly for seniors, as they lead to wide-ranging discussions about individual rights, how to exercise them respectfully during a police encounter, and understanding the privacy they sacrifice when putting information out on social media. No improvements suggested. This was very well managed in San Diego."
JIC programs offered through remote technology will become a principal means for judicial outreach to California students due to three factors: virtual technology will permit more judges and judges more frequently to participate remotely without interrupting their other judicial responsibilities; the use of pre-approved lesson plans will reduce a judge's preparation time; and many teachers due to the approval of the Superintendent of Education will be encouraged to integrate virtual visits by judges in their civics classes.
Virtual Townhalls is a public forum created by the San Bernardino County Superior Court. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, three trial court judges met to imagine a means to address issues of racism raised by the nationwide protests -- at a time the pandemic had closed down group meetings. They conceived Virtual Townhalls as a means to engage the community in a dialogue about the justice system. Within two months, the judges created program timeline and agendas, enlisted participation from the other government bodies, and recruited an online audience for three hour-long Virtual Townhalls on these topics and dates:
• "Civil Unrest and Racism: What Are We Doing?" Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 12 Noon,
• "Civil Unrest and Racism: What Are We Doing? Part II," Thursday, September 17, 2020, at 12 Noon
• "Eliminating Bias: Addressing Mental Health in the Justice System," Thursday, March 25, 2021, at 12 Noon
The Virtual Townhalls provided an opportunity for all justice agencies to describe what it was doing to eliminate bias and racism while providing services to the public. Their format was structured to answer questions about the justice system; and to hear community concerns (feedback) particularly about criminal justice system. The Virtual Townhalls apparently achieved these purposes. The online audience exceeded expectations. One audience member in her survey response said: "These topics are timely and most necessary and there was diversity manifested in the questions and opinions presented here....Thank you for this type of townhall meeting. It is an excellent proactive tool in promoting mutual understanding and respect between the community and the judiciary."
The judges enlisted court staff under the direction of the public information officer to bring this concept into reality in less than two months. The public information officer set up a schedule with a timeline of events and check off list to ensure objectives were achieved on schedule.
The judges selected Webex to provide the virtual platform because it had a greater audience capacity (up to 1,000 participants) than competing video-conference services. The court technology staff created links for all of the scheduled meetings and rehearsals, and, as the townhall dates approached, they tracked the registrations. The tech staff provided attendance counts and rosters to build listservs for future townhalls.
The challenge was to build an on-line audience to engage in an interactive dialogue about faults -- perceived and rea -- in the justice system. The organizers undertook a series of tasks. The first was to identify key outside organizations to ensure that promotion was targeted to their members. A second was to develop a topical agenda and enlist panelists to answer questions from an on-line audience. The third was to build an audience to attend a virtual program presented at lunch time mid-week. The court itself distributed press releases, email blasts and promoted the townhalls on social media. Social media advertising included ad space on Facebook and Twitter. The internet ads displayed a QR code to facilitate registration. A banner ad was posted on the court's homepage. The court also asked its inter-agency contacts to repost the court's flyer on their social media networks. All of these efforts broadened the audience demographics and encouraged public attendance.
The online audience could see and hear on a split-screen all of the panelists. The panelists who participated in the first two townhalls were the presiding judge, the district attorney, the public defender, a county supervisor, the assembly member, the undersheriff, the county bar president, and the deputy director for the county Health and Human Services Department. The panelists gave an overview of their agency's role in the justice system and spoke about their agency's response to issues of racism and civil unrest in the summer of 2020.
For the first Virtual Townhall 258 persons pre-registered to attend, with 172 attending in the online audience. Those attending could pose questions by using the chat function. The questions were anonymous to encourage the audience to present comments or questions no matter how controversial. The judges acted as moderators and directed the questions to the panelists.
The second Virtual Townhall, "Civil Unrest and Racism, Part II," was a more structured discussion and provided a robust Q and A session. The questions spanned all justice agencies because panelists representing each were visible to the on-line audience. The attendance at the second Virtual Townhall was 98 with 188 persons pre-registered. One hundred percent of those answering the on-line survey said they would be interested in attending later townhall meetings.
The court, through the Virtual Townhalls is reaching out for an interactive dialogue to obtain feedback about its performance and thus to enhance public understanding of and trust in the fair administration of justice. One court employee said in a survey response about the Virtual Townhall: "I feel so proud to be a part of the [San Bernardino] Court and so appreciate you all putting on this townhall, thank you!"
At this writing, we do not know which of three outstanding outreach programs will be selected by the California Judges Association for its inaugural Judicial Outreach Award. However, as this article predicts, virtual communication will continue to be a favored forum for judicial outreach even after the pandemic runs its course.