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Bringing communities closer to courts

January 7, 2021

Citizens often perceive courts as far removed from their daily lives. Some find the formality, language and processes of the courts confusing and overwhelming.  State courts may benefit from engaging in outreach programs within their local communities.

NCSC’s briefing paper to the National Advisory Board on Community Engagement in the State Courts, defined “engagement” as an ongoing forum allowing two-way interaction with the public in which both sides listen to one another, recommend reforms and take joint steps to address community and court concerns.

Five outreach mechanisms are currently in use by courts at the state and local levels, according to Rottman:

  1. Explaining: Court outreach efforts such as judicial speaker’s bureaus, court newsletters, and supreme courts that hold oral arguments in cities throughout the state all seek to educate the public about the constitutional role of judges and courts and demystify court processes.
  2. Social Science Research: Courts are the most proactive public institution in using social science techniques to identify areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
  3. Active Listening: Courts can convene forums whose primary objective is to allow judges and court staff to hear directly about community concerns and to obtain feedback and advice directly from members of the public.
  4. Reform of Court Processes: Through public hearings and other forms of active listening and sometimes social science research findings, state court systems and trial courts have introduced specific reforms in response to dialogue.
  5. Local delivery of justice: A core feature of a community court requires it to “establish a dialogue with community institutions and residents, including obtaining community input in identifying target problems and developing program.”

In addition, the National Center for State Courts developed a two-part webinar on this topic:  Community Engagement webinars. In the first part, Dr. Kellina Craig-Henderson of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) at the, National Science Foundation, provided six strategies to mitigate biases in court outreach and community engagement efforts:

  1. Education and awareness
  2. Decrease time pressure and distractions during interaction
  3. Focus on specific and explicit factors rather than global judgments and intuition
  4. Be self-aware and mindful
  5. Critically evaluate environment
  6. Understand the value of diversity

There are unique and forward leaning efforts in several states. The Tennessee Safe Baby Court is a community engagement initiative to improve services for children who are under court supervision. Currently, Safe Baby Court will be part of the 19 Days of Activism for the Prevention of Abuse and Violence Against Children and Youth. The virtual campaign is designed to encourage local organizations to promote education and awareness to end violence toward children.

Community engagement and outreach is important to maintaining public trust and confidence in the courts. How is your court reaching out to your community? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.