Court monitoring programs are programs
in which advocates or community members organize themselves to observe court
proceedings in a systematic way and to record and make public the results
of those observations. Monitoring programs can enhance a community’s response
to domestic violence in many ways. Monitoring and documentation can be an
important part of judicial reform, lobbying, media relations, and community
Objectives of Monitoring
a U.S.-based court monitoring program in Minneapolis, Minnesota, describes
the objectives that guide its efforts to “make the justice system more effective
and responsive in handling cases of violence, particularly against women and
children, and to create a more informed and involved public.” These objectives
Not only does monitoring generate
information about aspects of the judicial system that are of concern to battered
women, but the presence of monitors in the courtroom can itself help judges
and other courtroom personnel become more aware of the way they respond to
victim’s needs and the impact they have on batterer accountability.
In Why We Watch the Criminal
WATCH explains that “[a]lthough it is the role of the judicial system to act
swiftly, firmly, and consistently to reinforce the message that the violence
will not be tolerated, the system frequently fails to do so. . . . The presence
of observers in the courtroom can promote accountability and serve as a strong
reminder that the public has a vested interest in what happens there.”
Starting a Monitoring Program
Starting a monitoring program requires
considerable preparation to ensure that the program is focused on areas of
that are of the greatest concern to battered women and has established cooperative
relationships with judges, police, prosecutors, and victim advocates. WATCH,
in its publication Developing a Court Monitoring Program, describes the following
steps that can be used to prepare a monitoring program:
(1) Learn about the criminal justice
system: Understand the laws that apply to domestic violence, how cases progress
through the system (from the police to probation), and the responsibilities
of each actor within the legal system.
(2) Determine initial objectives:
Establish what the group wants to accomplish and how resources will be directed
toward achieving that goal. WATCH recommends defining criteria for selecting
cases to watch, and notes that some organizations may want to focus on one
particular type of proceeding.
(3) Conduct preliminary interviews:
Ask members of the criminal justice system about their views on the ways in
which (positive and negative) the judicial system responds to domestic violence
(4) Assess resources: The scope of
the monitoring project will depend on the resources—human and financial—that
are available to the organization.
(5) Get diversified feedback: Solicit
input and participation from all segments of the community. Allowing individuals
within the criminal justice system to offer feedback and voice their concerns
helps establish a non-adversarial relationship between the monitoring program
and the judicial system that will be critical to the sustainability and success
of the project.
There are no definitive rules or formulas
for the information that a court monitoring program can collect. The laws,
structure of the court system, judicial procedures, and available victim resources
will ultimately determine what information will be useful to gather. In general,
however, there are two kinds of information that a court monitoring
program might collect—process data and substance data.
Process data is information about
the proceeding itself—i.e., “how” it happened. Did it start on time? Were
the defendant and the victim alone in the courtroom at the same time? Could
the judge be heard? How did the judge and other courtroom personnel act? Did
the judge explain to the victim why and how things would happen?
Substance data, in contrast, is information
about “what” happened. Was the defendant released? What conditions, if any,
were imposed? Was the order for protection issued? Had there been a significant
delay since the last appearance? Did the judge give reasons for decisions?
Was the victim allowed to make a statement?
How monitors gather this information
can vary. WATCH, for example, initially gave monitors detailed questionnaires
to fill out during each monitoring session. WATCH organizers found, however,
that they could not anticipate every issue that might be of relevance to a
later analysis. To generate better information, WATCH expanded the training
it provided to monitors and allowed monitors more freedom to record data that
they thought was relevant to victim safety and batterer accountability. Monitors
are still asked specific questions about procedure and substance, but are
also allowed ample space to describe the process and substance of the proceeding
in their own words.
Monitoring groups also may want to
track certain cases or defendants. Tracking helps monitors to describe the
judicial system’s response to domestic abuse cases over time and can be particularly
useful in identifying systemic failures. For example, tracking a defendant
or case over time can provide powerful evidence of whether the criminal justice
system is consistently holding batterers accountable for their actions. Tracking
may also reveal, for example, that judges are not receiving the information
they may need to make informed decisions about victim safety.
Working with the Judiciary
Information gathered through monitoring
activities can be used to advocate for change and raise public awareness about
domestic violence. WATCH, for example, focuses its efforts on four groups:
judicial personnel, the legislature, the public, and the media. Lobbying,
community education and media relations are strategies employed by many domestic
violence advocates. Establishing and maintaining effective relationships with
judicial personnel, however, is of particular concern to monitoring programs
because of these programs are located in and work within the court system.
WATCH emphasizes the importance of
maintaining open lines of communication with judicial personnel and recommends
the following guidelines: