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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Role of the Judge

“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.

6 comments:

Chris Pleasanton said...

Aubrey...Thanks for the mention in the article. The thread on the role of the Judge and how, often times, the way they interact with defendants contributes to their success or failure was one of the most productive discussions we have had on Courtbuilders. So many people contributed with outstanding observations and experiences, that it was inspirational for me to take another look at how we interact with defendants here in Hartford.

While I agree that the role of the Judge and their interactions are one of the primary factors contributing to a defendants success, I believe it is worth noting the philosophy we have here in Hartford....this is, EVERYBODY is important to the process...from the Judge to the Janitor and all points in between (Marshals, Social Workers, Clerk's etc)...a bad interaction by one person on staff can undo the whole process leading up to the success of a defendant. While everyone can have a bad day and not be at their best, we really strive to show consistency throughout the process to defendants.

However, it does come back to the Judge in the end. The Judge sets the tone for the Court and we have been very fortunate in Hartford to have had three judges in our eight years (Judge Raymond Norko, Judge Jorge Simon, and currently, Judge Curtissa Cofield) who are caring and committed to working with defendants to get the best results. Our staff takes their cue from their leadership.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Red Hook mention too!

Chris Pleasanton's comment found me vigorously nodding my head in agreement. He hits on such a key point when he talks about how each and every court employee can ultimately influence an offender's success. Too often we don't acknowledge the value of those staff members who work and interact with the defendants outside of the courtroom. Chris's words are an important reminder that the court players may be center stage, but the behind the scenes players are no less important.

Gerianne Abriano
Kings County District Attorney's Office
Red Hook Community Justice Center

Anonymous said...

It's a bit ironic that, in a posting about the importance of judges treating defendants fairly, you refer to the people to whom you provide services as "offenders."

Perhaps your project would enjoy more support from the community if you watched your semantics and used words that don't carry such a stigma--unless, of course, that's how you really feel about the people your program claims to help.

Tony said...

I disagree in regards to the Judges named. They seem to work too much in favor of the defendant. I would not say this just because I am a disgruntled person and without reason to say. One of the Judges let the defendant go when this person was the one who was arrested for domestic violence, but it is not like that was this person's first offense. This person has a known previous record of domestic violence. Each time, the violence involves a child nearby. I am in fear of what could happen to my child and it turned out that my child's life was put into Simon's hands.

From the beginning, any motion I had was rejected by Judge Simon when I was the victim. Simon automatically sided with the defendant while they set forward about 25 false allegations which can be proved wrong if a fair hearing or trial was held, but that was not the case. The Judge has rejected anything that I have to say, when I have proof on my side and my right to a fair hearing. This Judge granted this person to take my child away from me without my say when this person has lost ALL parental rights to another child due to neglect and forms of abuse. The TRUTH needs to be heard, not only for my sake but for my child's sake and that is what I ask for. Where's the Justice??

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