A Project of the Center for Families, Children & the Courts Judicial Council of California – Administrative Office of the Courts & The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
by Cheri Ely, M.A., LSW, Program Manager, NCJFCJ
The Judicial Council of California – Administrative Office of the Courts is dedicated to improving the quality of justice and services to meet the diverse needs of children, youth, families, and self-represented litigants in the California courts. One of the projects created to help improve the quality of justice provided is the Juvenile Court Users’ Research and Technical Assistance Project. The starting point for this project was the Juvenile Delinquency Court Assessment 2008, completed by the Judicial Council, which identifies the experiences of court users and professionals in California.
From these statewide findings, and working with courts in California, this project aimed to identify barriers to the court users’ comprehension of court processes, propose solutions and assist these courts with implementation of developed improvement plans. For the purposes of this project, Court User is defined as the youth involved in the juvenile justice system, his/her parent or guardian, or a victim of a juvenile offender. This 18 month project occurred between June 2009 and December 2010.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) was contracted as the consultant to work with the selected juvenile courts to identify areas that may need improvement. Four courts initially accepted invitations to participate in this project: Fresno, Sacramento, San Diego, and Santa Cruz, although Sacramento withdrew from the project during the early stages. NCJFCJ worked with court staff, stakeholders, and court users in the juvenile justice system to identify and assess barriers that may effect participation in the court. A strategic plan was then developed to address those barriers. The California AOC legal and research staff was available to provide legal technical assistance during implementation and to evaluate the pilot improvement projects with systematic research and reporting.
Some of the common barriers experienced by Court Users in the participating project sites included:
- Difficulty in understanding outcomes of court hearings or the court case process
- Lack of a central contact person to receive and answer questions from Court Users
- Frustratingly long wait times at the courthouses for hearings, which caused loss of time from work or school
- Barriers for victims of juvenile offenders included:
- Inconsistent notifications of hearings
- Confusion regarding the restitution process
- Safety concerns when encountering the juvenile offender and his/her family at the courthouse.
Project sites developed varied strategic action plans and goals to assist Court Users. Strategies included improving understanding of the juvenile court case process through videos, literature specific to juvenile courts, modifying language used in hearings, or providing a central point of contact for questions and answers at the courthouse. Strategies to improve victim participation included providing information on victim rights, improving safety for victims in the courthouse and increasing awareness of victim advocacy services. Below are some specific intervention strategies that were implemented:
- Experiment with longer hearings to permit more meaningful exchanges
- Schedule specific hearing times for cases to facilitate attendance by parents/guardians and victims
- Create a juvenile court illustration that explains the role of each person in the court room
- Assign a Family/Court Counselor/Consultant to assist with the case
- Develop a Case Processing Flow Chart for display that clearly and simply explains the juvenile court process
- Development of plain language scripts for use in court
- Develop a video or other type of media that explains the court process, possibly narrated by a parent, youth and/or victim (to see a video currently in use, go to http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/programs/cfcc/)
- Take a fresh look at your court – sit in waiting areas, tour facility, just observe
- Escort victims and families in and out of courtroom separately
- Separate waiting areas for juvenile offenders and victims
- Receive feedback from court users on their comprehension of court language (regular surveys & evaluations)
The Judicial Council intends to utilize lessons learned from this project and encourage courts statewide to evaluate their own processes in regards to Court User engagement and understanding and make improvements to produce positive outcomes for youth, families and victims involved in the juvenile justice system. For more information about this project, please contact:
Center for Families, Children & the Courts
Judicial Council of California – Administrative Office of the Courts
455 Golden Gate Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102-3688