Re-Inventing Justice Project: A Court-Community Partnership

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West Roxbury Division, Massachusetts Trial Court

Kathleen E. Coffey
First Justice

Robert C. Rufo
Associate Justice

The Problem

The Massachusetts Trial Court Department must address three growing challenges if it is to ensure the public trust and confidence of its participants and properly meet its constitutional and statutory obligations through the fair and orderly administration of justice:

  • The Trial Court system is commonly perceived as an insulated and reactionary institution that is unresponsive to the community it represents and unaccountable for the decisions it makes.
  • No accepted measurement tool is in use to evaluate an individual court’s performance in meeting the needs of the community and fulfilling its legal responsibilities.
  • The court system fails to utilize resources available outside the Trial Court system to assist in the expansion of its services and increase its presence and participation in the lives of the people it serves in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

The Solution

The Re-Inventing Justice Project seeks to make the West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court more accountable, accessible, and responsive to the needs of the people it serves. It seeks to increase public trust and confidence in the court system.

The Re-Inventing Justice Project was initiated in 1997 and continues under the leadership of First Justice Kathleen E. Coffey. The core of the project is a community task force managed by First Justice Coffey and Associate Justice Robert C. Rufo. It is comprised of more than 25 members who reflect the ethnically diverse and culturally rich urban neighborhoods served by the West Roxbury Court within the City of Boston: Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, West Roxbury, Mission Hill, and sections of Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester. The members of the community task force identify problems and challenges to the administration of justice and find solutions through available community resources. Members include community leaders, elected officials, private defense attorneys, Boston police officers, students, and clergy from community churches, assistant district attorneys, public and parochial school teachers, probation officers, clerks and court security personnel. Task force meetings are conducted during non-court hours and are regularly scheduled on the first Wednesday of each month from 7 PM to 9 PM. All task force members are volunteers.

Community members working through the partnership improve the consistent delivery of Court services and increase public awareness of the services provided by the West Roxbury Court. The Court is able to recognize the needs and concerns of the community, is able to respond immediately to those concerns, and is ultimately able to find workable solutions by utilizing the talent and community resources within its own jurisdiction. Task force members serve as “listening posts” and by participating on various subcommittees of the project assist the Court in public awareness “campaigns” and consistent delivery of services. By utilizing the talent of its task force members and tapping local community resources, the Court is able to respond quickly to community concerns and find workable solutions. The constant interaction with task force members allows the Court to assess and measure its performance in meeting the needs of the community and fulfilling its legal responsibilities.

The Re-inventing Justice Project ensures that the West Roxbury Court identifies and utilizes, if appropriate, resources and solutions to problems available through government agencies, business organizations, medical services, community groups, and private individuals independent of the Trial Court system. This approach liberates the West Roxbury Court from dependence on the traditionally limited and coveted resources of the Trial Court Department. Particularly during this period of fiscal and economic restraint, this approach is essential to the management and administration of justice within the Trial Court system.

Court Access

The West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court is located at 445 Arborway in Jamaica Plain, near the Forest Hills MBTA station and proximate to the Forest Hills Cemetery, Franklin Park, and the Shattuck Hospital. Members of the task force determined that visitors had difficulty locating the West Roxbury Courthouse, which is in Jamaica Plain, and once inside the Court building, visitors had further difficulty finding their specific destination. This was not surprising since jury trials require the presence of witnesses, jurors, and personnel who reside within and outside Suffolk County, many of whom are unfamiliar with the Forest Hills neighborhood. In addition, the West Roxbury Courthouse encompasses five trial sessions, including a juvenile session, the Clerk’s Office, the Probation Department, a lock-up security facility, the Office of the District Attorney, the Office for Public Counsel, a Court Clinic and administrative offices. The busy and fast-paced environment presented a logistical nightmare for visitors, many of whom are non-English speaking or first-time visitors. The task force reported that visitors experienced a range of problems, including tardiness for Court, undue stress, and the inevitable frustrations accompanying a first-time court appearance.

In response, the task force conceived and implemented two initiatives. First, it coordinated with the MBTA to place bilingual signage strategically at the Forest Hills MBTA station and along major access roads exhibiting directions to the courthouse. Second, it established an informational booth/kiosk in the main lobby of the West Roxbury Courthouse. Volunteers from the community staff and operate the kiosk through a program known as V.I.P. (Volunteer Information Program). They are available early every morning to answer questions from visitors and provide directions to the various court departments and trial sessions. Volunteers are retirees and senior citizens from a variety of backgrounds and come with a wealth of experience. They benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the interaction with daily court activities and the opportunity to serve the public, thereby providing a service to the Court and the community at no cost. Each volunteer is a graduate of a training program specifically designed by the task force to familiarize them with court protocol, procedure, practice, and court notices and forms. The initiative has achieved dramatic success. Because of the volunteers’ efforts, the processing and inter-department flow of daily courthouse activity has been streamlined.

Community Awareness

Many community residents were unaware of the role and responsibilities of the West Roxbury Court and were conspicuously ignorant about the panoply of services offered by the Court. Perceptions and opinions were based primarily on television and media accounts (i.e., Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown), rather than on accurate information or firsthand experience.

  • Informational Brochure: Role and Responsibilities of West Roxbury Court

The task force produced and published an informational brochure and map in English and Spanish, which outlines the role of the Court and describes available programs. The task force provides the brochure to each prospective juror and visitor to the West Roxbury Court and distributes copies in libraries, police stations, community centers, and public buildings in the neighborhoods.

  • Open House Series

To increase awareness of the Court’s role in the community, the task force held a series of Open Houses during which a variety of court proceedings were enacted for the public, including a mock restraining order hearing and other criminal proceedings. Each of the court departments offered instructional presentations, including how to file a small claims action, how to seek relief from a tenant or landlord, and what to do when served with a motor vehicle citation. The West Roxbury Probation Department presented information about the services it provides to the community, including substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and domestic abuse treatment. The task force held a question-and-answer session, which in addition to responding to participants’ specific inquiries, provided an opportunity to hear concerns and requests regarding the role of the Court in the communities.

  • Educational Brochure: Children Exposed to Domestic Violence

The task force also recognized that the children of domestic abuse victims had special needs because of exposure to serious violence in the home. The task force determined that medical insurance coverage often was not available and that parents looked to the Court for help in identifying and securing medical and psychiatric treatment and counseling for their children. The task force collaborated with nursing students from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Police. The nursing students identified and reviewed all the existing neighborhood programs, shelters, and treatment centers in the jurisdiction and compiled a list of medical providers offering free treatment and counseling. The Boston Police assisted the Court in publishing an informational brochure that lists these resources. The brochure is distributed to all victims of domestic abuse in the West Roxbury Court trial sessions and at all restraining order hearings. It is also available to the public at police stations, libraries, and community health centers.

The Court’s response to community needs is a constant challenge that requires vigilance and consistency. Accordingly, the West Roxbury Court Judges, joined by members of the task force, regularly attend evening community meetings conducted by neighborhood crime watch groups, business associations, and a variety of civic organizations. Participation in these community initiatives enhances community accessibility to the Court, increases public trust and confidence, and educates the Court about the needs and concerns of neighborhood residents.

Youth Programs

The City of Boston has witnessed an increase in the number of young people arrested for a range of crimes from graffiti and drug involvement to crimes resulting in bodily harm and violence. The locations of these crimes include schools, homes, bus and train stations, and other public areas. Much of the behavior is traced to peer pressure, poor self-control, and inappropriate responses to law enforcement officials, including local school police. In an effort to curb the rising numbers of young people entering the criminal justice system, the task force created two educational programs for students in the neighborhoods served by the Court. Both of the programs are staffed by members of the task force who volunteer their expertise and experience toward educating young people at an early age in an effort to deter criminal conduct.

  • Straight Ahead with West Roxbury Court

The Straight Ahead Program is a values-based interactive program for fifth and sixth graders. To date, over 20 Boston public and parochial schools have participated. Through a series of skits, videos, and discussions held at the Courthouse, the children learn about peer pressure, controlling anger, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the consequences of poor choices. The children also observe a trial, tour the courthouse including the lock-up, and have a chance, over pizza and soda, to ask the judges questions concerning the criminal justice system and safety issues they face living within their city neighborhoods. Graduation day for the students from the Straight Ahead Program is part of the annual West Roxbury Court Law Day celebration, which takes place on the first Friday in May. On this occasion, winners of the essay and poster contests from the local public and parochial schools are announced and guest speakers such as singer/entertainer Joey McIntyre and Boston College basketball player Troy Bell discuss the dangers of peer pressure, uncontrolled anger, and the consequences of abuse of drugs and alcohol. A box lunch is traditionally provided to all the students with funds obtained through a Boston Police Youth Crime Prevention Grant.

Parents and teachers consistently report a marked improvement in the behavior of the students, an increased understanding of the justice system by the students, and an expressed desire to emulate the positive role models they observed working in the court system including the judges, probation officers, clerks, court officers, attorneys, and police officers.

  • Rights and Responsibilities

High school students present different challenges and issues than their middle school counterparts. In the Rights and Responsibilities Program, the task force seeks to dispel the myth and mystique created by the popular culture concerning police and citizen street encounters and to reinforce positive behavior and attitudes toward police officers and school officers. The students observe a skit of a typical street encounter enacted by task force members. A discussion follows the skit in which the rights of citizens are compared with the responsibilities of citizens in an attempt to portray what conduct is an appropriate response during a stop and frisk or street stop by the police. The students observe through the skit the consequences of inappropriate behavior, i.e., arrest, as opposed to appropriate behavior in responding to police questioning.

The exchange and dialogue between the students and the task force members help identify specific issues confronting high school students and their peers in various neighborhoods. At the same time, the exchange allows the task force members who include police, defense counsel, probation officers, and judges to address the genuine needs, fears, and concerns of the students regarding their perception of the police and the West Roxbury Court and its impact on their lives.

Enhancement of Probation Services

Working with the task force, the West Roxbury Probation Department has been able to expand the services it offers to probationers and provide more resources to West Roxbury Court from agencies and organizations independent of the Trial Court system.

  • The Mothers’ Program

Established in 1998, this first in the Commonwealth program for mothers on probation is an innovative vehicle dedicated to strengthening the parenting skills of mothers. It focuses on the incidents and circumstances that caused the women to enter the criminal justice system. The goals of the program are to reduce recidivism and to educate mothers about providing safe and stable homes for their children. Through a partnership with the Dimmock Community Health and Behavioral Center, the West Roxbury Court was able to establish an after-care program for the mothers in which a clinician meets individually with each mother and addresses the specific needs of that woman (domestic abuse, employment, substance abuse) that are interfering with her ability to develop into a strong, independent and selfsupporting member of our community. This community resource has enhanced the effectiveness of the services offered by the West Roxbury Probation Department without any additional financial cost or burden to the Trial Court system.

  • The Fatherhood Program

The Fatherhood Program recognizes the unique and powerful role a father plays in the developmental and emotional growth of his children. This program is offered to young men on probation who are fathers and have been convicted of domestic abuse, drug offenses, and other crimes. The primary goals of the program are to encourage fathers to recognize their responsibility to their children and to reduce recidivism through educational discussions and role model presentations. The program consists of three 12-week sessions at Bethel A.M.E. Church located in Jamaica Plain under the supervision and leadership of Reverend Roland Robinson and a member of the West Roxbury Probation Department. The classes are designed to provide a spiritual, values-based approach intended to change destructive behavior and re-establish the parental relationship. The instructors and guest speakers stress the principles of affection toward the individual child, demonstration of respect toward the mother, and the requirement that the father exhibit exemplary behavior, free from the taint of alcohol and drug abuse. This Probation/Church partnership enables fathers on probation to participate in a values-based forum outside the adversarial courthouse setting.

  • The Forensic Access to Community Services Program

Probationers who suffer from mental illness and an addiction to drugs and alcohol often fail to complete the terms of their probation. Their poor communication skills, anxiety, lack of organization, and addictions impede their ability to report regularly and avoid illegal substances.

The Re-Inventing Justice Task Force collaborated with the Boston Medical Center and the West Roxbury Probation Department to develop a program that provides individual psychiatric care with essential support services. Through the FACS Program (Forensic Access to Community Services), each probationer is assigned a clinician/therapist, a psychiatrist, a mental health street worker, and a specialized probation officer whose caseload consists exclusively of probationers suffering from mental illness and addiction to drugs and alcohol. This individualized and inclusive approach has afforded these probationers the structure and assistance they need to comply with the conditions of probation. These additional resources supplement the efforts of the West Roxbury Probation Department to increase effectiveness in supervising this challenged population.

Educational Programs for Adults and Senior Citizens

Through discussions with neighborhood elderly groups, local business associations, and neighborhood crime-watch associations, the task force identified a need for informational classes regarding citizen’s rights and resources for combating crimes against the elderly. The task force addressed the senior community’s interest in obtaining pertinent legal information by establishing a Community Legal Access Series for Seniors (CLASS). The task force advertised in local newspapers and posted neighborhood fliers; notices were distributed to the community regarding this series of informational sessions to take place at the West Roxbury Courthouse. Volunteer representatives from the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, the Postal Inspection Service, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and the Boston Police Department in conjunction with task force members gave presentations to the public on issues that affect the quality of life for the resident seniors. The volunteers addressed a variety of concerns expressed by the adult and senior residents, including identity fraud, small claims procedure, consumer fraud and warranty, estate planning, and elderly abuse issues. The exchange between the participants was informative, educational, and served to identify additional community concerns and interests, which will be addressed at future CLASS sessions.

Costs and Benefits

Initiated with a grant from the Supreme Judicial Court in September 1997, the Re-Inventing Justice Project is an ongoing volunteer urban partnership that augments the scarce resources of the West Roxbury Court with independent and neighborhood support in an effort to address community concerns and improve the quality of life for the citizens of Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, West Roxbury, Mission Hill, Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester. This continuing partnership has allowed the West Roxbury Court to identify specific neighborhood problems and attempt to address those concerns by initiating innovative programs such as V.I.P, Straight Ahead, Rights and Responsibilities, Mothers Program, Fatherhood Program, CLASS, and FACS.

The West Roxbury Court has determined that external communication is a core court activity. Courts cannot afford to wait until extra resources become available before they start planning how to provide services to the communities they serve. Expensive new technology and paid consultants are not necessary to begin bringing community residents into the court’s culture. The West Roxbury Re-Inventing Justice Project illustrates how courts can begin with low-cost planning activities and explore opportunities for additional resources as the planning process unfolds. As courts reach out to other community and government entities to create an effective plan, they may learn of expertise that resides in the community and funding sources they do not normally access.

The West Roxbury Court has included stakeholders and members of the public in all of its court and community initiatives. This not only insures that the public’s voice is included but also creates community advocates for the court. The court’s future request for funding to implement or continue an important function or program is likely to be more effective coming from a member of the public. Members of the public arguing for funding to safeguard courthouse functions and programs reinforces the idea that the funds are needed for the protection of the public as well as for judges and court staff. Whether additional funding is forthcoming or not, the West Roxbury Court remains committed to continued community participation in its Re-Inventing Justice Project.

Obstacles

In organizing and implementing the Re-Inventing Justice Project, we encountered three major obstacles.

  • Time commitment. All of the committee members are volunteers who participate without any compensation and who donate their talents and time enthusiastically and liberally. Many of our endeavors, especially in the early planning stages of a program or event, require a substantial investment of time, energy, and effort. It is often challenging for the judges, staff, and community volunteers to meet their daily work responsibilities and also address the planning requirements and demands of the Re-Inventing Justice Project.
  • Finances. Some costs and expenses generated by the Re-Inventing Justice Program are not as readily assumed by our partners as others. For example, postage, refreshments, and printing are necessary expenditures for many events and projects that can quickly mushroom into a sizable expenditure. Small grants and stipends would alleviate the necessity of constantly seeking ways to cover basic operating costs.West Roxbury Division, Massachusetts Trial Court
  • Attitudes. The Re-Inventing Justice Program presents a new vision of how a court and community should forge working partnerships. As with all changes, there can be an initial hesitation or reluctance that if not addressed will hinder a spirit of cooperation and collaboration.

Replication

The V.I.P. program and informational kiosk serve as a best practice model for other courts in the Commonwealth. The West Roxbury V.I.P Program has been most recently adopted and instituted at the new Brooke Courthouse in downtown Boston. The Massachusetts Trial Court has a Public Trust & Confidence Committee, which has expressed an interest in replicating some of the programs and initiatives developed by the West Roxbury Court’s Re-Inventing Justice Project.

About the Authors

Honorable Kathleen E. Coffey, First Justice, West Roxbury Division, Boston Municipal Court Department, was appointed to the bench in 1993. She is the chair of the Mental Health Committee for the Boston Municipal Court. Before joining the bench, she was in private practice from 1988 to 1993 at Parkway Law Offices in West Roxbury and with Brogna & Butters from 1985 to 1988. From 1979 to 1983, she was an Assistant District Attorney for Suffolk County. Judge Coffey currently teaches at Lasell College and has served on the faculty at Suffolk Law School as a full-time associate professor and as a member of the adjunct faculty.

Honorable Robert C. Rufo, Associate Justice, West Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department, was appointed to this position in 1997. From 1996 to 1997, he was a Circuit Justice for the District Court. Before joining the bench, he was elected to and served as Sheriff of Suffolk County. From 1975 to 1977, he was a full-time instructor at Suffolk Law School and continues to serve as a member of the adjunct faculty at Suffolk University Law School and New England School of Law.

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