“The way a judge interacts with defendants [has] a tremendous impact,” wrote Hartford Community Court Coordinator Chris Pleasanton on Court Builders, a forum for community court leaders from across the country.
Chris’s comment came as part of a discussion about the importance of judicial interaction with defendants, a particularly interesting issue for us at Bronx Community Solutions.
Evidence suggests that defendants are more likely to comply with court orders if they feel that they have been treated fairly. Simple behaviors such as making eye contact, clearly explaining court mandates and allowing defendants to tell their side of the story are important factors in improving a defendants sense of fairness, and the ultimate likelihood of their success, according to to recent studies.
The principle that judicial behavior matters has been well established in problem-solving courts created across the country. It’s become almost a mantra, as Gerianne Abriano, an Assistant District Attorney at the Red Hook Community Justice Center writes, that "participants are elated by praise from the judge and are motivated to do better when the judge is angry.”
This sentiment was echoed by folks in Seattle, Hartford and Indianapolis who agreed that the judges in their problem-solving courthouses take on many roles on the bench, but ultimately share one common characteristic – they possess genuine compassion and concern for defendants.
The importance of direct judicial interaction with defendants can be a harder sell in a centralized court setting with its huge caseloads and limited opportunities for ongoing engagement. Unlike specialty courts, where a judge might meet regularly with a defendant, judges in traditional courts only see defendants if they are re-arrested or returned to court on a warrant – hardly an environment for positive reinforcement.
Still, there are a number of reasons why judicial interaction with defendants is important in a centralized court setting. In an environment where defendants are quickly shuffled through the system, there are plenty of barriers to compliance. Defendants often do not know where they are supposed to go, what they've been mandated to, or that they may go to jail if they don't do it.
We've found that support from the bench is crucial in enforcing immediacy and encouraging compliance. When our judges take the time to clearly explain to defendants the conditions of their mandate and consequences for failure, they are more likely to report to us right away. Not only does this immediacy improve their chance of completion, but more importantly, it quickens their connection to helpful services.
Although we make every attempt to bring defendants into compliance with their court orders and remind them of the consequences for failure, our efforts are sometimes unsuccessful without judicial support. In one courtroom in the Bronx where defendants are returned on warrants issued for failing to comply with their court mandates, defendants take their more mandates seriously after being admonished by the presiding judge. “I thought he [the judge] was going to put me in jail, I’m going to do it this time.”
The good news is that little things matter a lot. Explaining a mandate in plain English can be just as important as congratulating a defendant for completing a drug treatment program. And it’s not just the judge who matters – in the Bronx everyone in the courthouse plays a role, from the clerks who prepare the paperwork to the court officers who direct offenders to our offices.
Before, when defendants were sentenced to community service they often times left the courtroom without knowing where they were supposed to report. By simply providing clear instruction sheets and taking the time to review defendants paperwork with them, clerks in the Bronx are now contributing to a defendants chance of success. And the court officers are even taking it a step further.
“I’ll take him over, I want to talk to him” offered the sergeant in arraignments in reference to a young man waiting to be brought to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office. Sergeant Hill likes reading young defendant’s what’s know as the “riot act” – an encouraging lecture from a person in uniform. Part nature and part Bronx Community Solutions influence, Sergeant Hill now takes an active role in impacting these young defendant’s lives as problem-solving principles become part of the fabric of the conventional Bronx courthouse.