The state courts where I live have been caught up in the pandemic crises of our day. Normally, I’d say that’s a reasonable thing. Courts are great places for those seeking justice, access to information, or a resolution to a dispute. But the message I sometimes get from the media and the demonstrations is that to some people courts can be places to fear. I hear courts described as just assigners of blame where punishment gets doled out. They’re places folks go to risk losing their liberty, homes, and financial solvency after spending a sleepless night and sometimes a lot of money before the court date worrying about how things will turn out. Oh, and I hear they’re also places where court staff have concerns about being exposed to a malady or about being evacuated by law enforcement when a peaceful demonstration takes a turn and damage gets done to a courthouse. So, it is unclear to me if courts have effectively communicated the positive ways those touched by the justice system contribute to our communities. I’m sharing a few stories, which may inspire you to speak up about the great work you see at courts.
In April, Rashee Roberson saw a need in Plainfield, New Jersey. Out of his own pocket, he decided to bring fifty homecooked meals of seafood, chicken, rice, and vegetables to the homeless who were struggling with shelters closing during the day and with navigating personal distancing. When he was thanked, he said he was just glad to help. What does this have to do with courts? Mr. Roberson is a 33-year-old father of three daughters who had been out of work and facing possible prison time when he entered the New Jersey Judiciary’s drug court program just the year before. He said, “There’s so many different people doing so many different things trying to help out during this time and so I figured, why not play my part, why not play my role?”
It is an amazing person who sees possible punishment in their future and who chooses the challenge of discipline that a court provides. Anyone who has been to a drug court graduation has had the opportunity to be inspired by a drug court participant and has heard how much effort goes into maintaining that treatment course. Mr. Roberson is now a truck driver and more engaged with his young children. “I haven’t always been fortunate enough to get help myself. I went hungry. I couldn’t feed my kids,” he said, “Out of the kindness of my heart, it’s something I just wanted to do, to give back to people that are less fortunate.”1
To reduce the likelihood of those on probation reoffending, the New Jersey court probation system is changing its philosophy—shifting from sanctioning with punitive measures toward rehabilitating by changing behaviors. Supervision is still tailored to client needs, but high-risk clients are provided more direction to improve their lives. Using a new assessment system, staff encourage positive behavior. They use evidence-based practices to promote change. For instance, addressing poverty as a whole requires probation staff to provide support through employment and educational referrals for underemployed clients.
Rashad Shabaka-Burns, director of the Office of Probation Services, describes this change in client services. “The goal is to change lives and, in turn, to strengthen our communities.” Providing positive incentives and making people successful in meeting their financial obligations is part of that. They address barriers to payment in child support enforcement by providing options, such as alternative collection of funds and compliance with community service orders. Because communication can foster better understanding, the Office of Probation Services also has an ombudsman unit to share the message about this shifted probation philosophy with those in the community to build public confidence.2
In Athens-Clarke County Georgia, the probation department also undertook a shift when the pandemic struck. They turned to remote reporting for probationers and pretrial participants. As compliance with ordered community service is used in lieu of confinement or fines, it was problematic when in-person community service opportunities at government offices and nonprofits were suddenly curtailed. To resolve this, Project Hope was born. Over a hundred active status pretrial participants and probationers made cloth masks as part of their community service. The followed a design and instructions in English and Spanish to create their handiwork. By the end of June, they made 2,353 masks, which were sent to local hospitals, retirement homes, nonprofits, small businesses, the courts, and Athens-Clarke County government employees. The chief probation officer, Dale Allen, says it best, “This project became the story of people who were not in a great position. They had to do something for the community because of a mistake they made. They chose a project that can actually save lives. . . . Every one of these folks from all walks of life, all races, genders . . . stepped up and became heroes in my book.” Masks made by those involved in this project continue to arrive in the mail as part of this shift to remote community service.3
Hoping for a better outcome and communicating about it is a powerful thing. It helps quell fear. Courts are part of this story, although it often goes untold outside our community. I hope you’ll add your own story and be proud of the opportunities for change you create in the lives you touch. Even—or maybe especially—at times when people are in crisis. Every day at court may be the most important day in someone’s life.
With gratitude for the important work you do,
- “It’s ‘Personal’: Drug Court Participant Cooks Meals for Homeless During Pandemic,” New Jersey Courts, April 28, 2020, https://www.njcourts.gov/pressrel/2020/pr042820a.pdf.
- “A Look at the Changing Philosophy of Probation Services in New Jersey,” New Jersey Courts, June 23, 2020.
- “Project Hope,” by Dale Allen, Chief Probation Officer, Athens-Clarke County Probation Services.