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Rod Watson: Average citizens in the best position to judge our courts

Rod Watson

When a 20-year-old man was shot to death July 29 in a dispute with his Carl Street neighbor, the mayor and police were quick to note that the victim had been in jail the night before. Their point: Why was he back on the streets the next day?

As complaints about a courtroom "revolving door" escalate and police and judges trade barbs over the cause, the solution lies with those caught in the figurative and literal crossfire: The public.

Citizen monitoring of courts to see how effectively justice is being dispensed is already in place in other parts of New York. The Fund for Modern Courts has been doing it since 1975 and has issued 20 reports on courts everywhere from Dutchess County to Monroe County – but not here.

However, its recent focus has been on Family Court, and it hasn’t looked at criminal courts since 2004, said Executive Director Dennis Hawkins.

Rod Watson: Blame game leaves citizens stuck in justice system’s ‘revolving door’

A more relevant model can be found 1,200 miles to the south.

Court Watch NOLA began in 2007 in New Orleans, and unlike groups that focus on DWI or domestic violence cases, it monitors everything from bail and bond hearings to misdemeanor and felony trials. It’s now up to 150 volunteers who undergo eight hours of training, four in the classroom and four in courtrooms.

Executive Director Simone Levine ticks off some of the issues they have tackled: prosecutors jailing crime victims to force them to testify, bail and bond hearings' being closed to the public on nights and weekends, and an inordinate number of courtroom sidebars – which shut out the public – and continuances that drag out cases. Her organization's reports also have led to an ethics investigation against the district attorney issuing fake subpoenas that look like the real thing but lack a judge’s signature.

"We often say if we’re doing our job right, we’ll have no friends in the court," said Levine, noting that the group’s public reports have focused on judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

Could a similar group of organized courtroom monitors help the public determine who’s responsible for what Mayor Byron Brown has called the "revolving door," a litany of cases in which police say shooters were let go or were out on bail, only to shoot someone else?

"Yeah, I definitely think so," said Levine.

Such a program lets the public "see with their eyes open what’s going on in the courts, and then make their own decision," she added.

Hawkins, a former prosecutor, notes that people "tend to be more careful when they’re being scrutinized," but cautions that it might be hard for lay people to pick up on patterns in criminal proceedings. One Buffalo judge also calls the issue "a tough one" because monitors wouldn’t know the defendant’s background or other nuances.

But a lot of that would come out in courtroom proceedings, and monitors would know at least as much as the jury.

Besides, who better to weigh whether the criminal justice system is working as it should than the people caught in the middle, who want hardened criminals locked up but who also know that some kids carry a gun only because they’ve been threatened. Neighborhood residents are in the unique position to determine if police and prosecutors screwed up, or if judges are being too lenient – or too hard.

A court monitoring program, with public reports, also would solve the problem of voters going to the polls to ratify the judicial and DA selections of party bosses while having little else to go on.

One key, though, is that the court monitors reflect Buffalo's diverse population. Getting such a representative sample has been a challenge in New Orleans, where Levine said it has been difficult to find enough people of color who have the free time. They’ve recruited among college students and senior citizens, but she said the program is "not yet where we need to be" in terms of diversity.

If Buffalo can solve that dilemma, a court monitoring program also would solve another dilemma: Figuring out who’s at fault when gunmen are set free to shoot again.

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