I have been watching the growth of court-watching in Georgia, and it is encouraging to see the practice taking hold. Nothing will change on the streets until public scrutiny is brought to bear on the courts, where evidence abounds that judges have been breaking and bending the intent of Georgia’s sentencing laws with no professional consequences whatsoever.
No consequences for judges, even when they actually violate Georgia’s sentencing laws. No prosecutor dare complain when a judge cuts an illicit deal with an offender — because the prosecutor must appear before that judge, or one of that judge’s peers and colleagues, every single day. You can’t be critical of judges and be effective in the courtroom. So there are no consequences for judges, even when their decision to overlook the law or their failure to do their jobs with appropriate diligence results in preventable murders, like the killing of Dr. Eugenia Calle.
The judiciary is far too much an insider’s club — loyal only to each other and unwilling to hold their peers to appropriate standards of conduct. Does anyone disagree?
Thus, court-watching. The judiciary behaves better when they know they are being watched. And when they don’t behave better, someone will be there to see it and report it to others, maybe even complain about it. To whom do you complain? That’s a subject for another day. The next step for Atlanta is to create a site where all the different court watchers can report on the courtroom decisions they witness — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Atlanta’s court watchers could not adapt a better communication model than Orlando CourtWatch’s. Here is their blog and here is their organizational website. This nonprofit has trained 150 volunteers in two years and monitored more than 7,000 hearings. With the exception of a proliferation of Snow Whites and Goofys, Orlando has a good deal in common with Atlanta, demographically and crime-wise, so the same could certainly happen in Atlanta.
Orlando CourtWatch is organized differently from the Atlanta program, which is being run through the D.A.’s office. The Orlando CourtWatch organization is an independent 501-c3 with one paid staff member, and their primary focus is domestic violence courts. But the organizing model would apply to any court. And having a program independent of the D.A. is useful in many ways, not least of which being that independent court watchers could speak out without worrying that they are endangering prosecutions by doing so.
In terms of impacting public safety, I think court watching is every bit as vital as neighborhood watches. When offenders are permitted to cycle through the system, they are not only free to commit more crime: the local system gets depleted of funds as it addresses the same criminals over and over again.
So lives get endangered (including the lives of all those 18-year old criminals, for those who exclusively sympathize with them), tax dollars get squandered, and nothing gets resolved.
Tomorrow: Georgia Tech Crime Wave, and What to Watch for in a Court