Texas Municipal Courts Face of Justice Project
By Emily LaGratta, LaGratta Consulting, LLC & Mark Goodner, General Counsel and Director of Education, Texas Municipal Courts Education Center
The Texas Municipal Courts Education Center partnered with the Center for Court Innovation and Emily LaGratta (now of LaGratta Consulting LLC) to develop the “Texas Municipal Courts Face of Justice” project to advance the conversation around how courts can implement procedural justice. Procedural justice research shows that how court users are treated can help build trust and improve compliance with court orders through four key elements: voice, respect, neutrality, and understanding.
The project examined two often-hidden touchpoints that many courts have with the public: first, court websites, and second, courthouse walls. Each presents opportunity for court leadership to prioritize fairness and ensure that the court’s messaging to the court users and the public at large are consistent with the messages delivered by the professionals who work there.
In making a case for better courthouse signage, the toolkit outlines the challenge that most physical spaces of our country’s courts vary greatly. Their size, layout, infrastructure, functionality, and décor are as diverse as the communities they serve. Despite this variation, there are common concerns that unite almost all courts. Namely, all courthouses benefit from messaging to those who enter their doors. Priorities like security and wayfinding are common to both a small rural courthouse in Texas and a large urban courthouse in New York. Rarely, however, do the courthouse walls – including its signage – support court professionals in conveying to court users the information they need in the most effective and fair means possible. This is certainly not because those court professionals do not care about what the public thinks, but rather that design, aesthetics, and professionalism have often been relegated to something akin to luxury in a system that is constantly asked to do more with less.
So the signage toolkit sets out to help judges and other criminal court practitioners improve courthouse signage by showing examples of promising signage implemented in real courthouses around the country, and then suggest some planning steps for those who pursue a similar endeavor. Some of the signage samples included are court-specific – such as a building directory – so they do not have utility as an off-the-shelf resource, but rather are intended to give ideas for future, localized designs. But for other signs, such as those that convey typical courtroom rules or notices about court procedures, the samples provided may have direct applicability. High resolution images of those are provided in the toolkit appendix for use and reproduction.
Regarding improved court websites, the rationale for and resulting resource provided are similar. Many courts, even small or rural courts, have a website, but their quality and capacity vary. Perhaps in particular, municipal courts often have the most limited resources to dedicate to serving the public online and make meaningful investments in their websites from the user experience perspective. Courts in small, rural jurisdictions may rely on one individual judge or magistrate to maintain their website, while courts in bigger cities may rely on their city’s information technology department.
While most of these websites are designed and maintained by well-intentioned court professionals, language tends to be jargon-heavy and can fail to strike the right balance of quantity and quality of information. Some overly focus on the payment of fines and fees, perhaps shortcutting a process that should also assert the rights of defendants to plead not guilty and contest their charges. Others simply offer very little content because of limited resources and attention. But as responses to COVID-19 have shown, websites can be an essential method to provide up-to-date information to the public, in addition to facilitating court business more directly, whether scheduling hearings or submitting paperwork online.
The website toolkit was developed to help court practitioners and other professionals who support court websites make improvements guided by procedural justice principles. The core content of the toolkit is organized by a handful of key website components that were identified during project planning to be of highest priority to the broadest range of courts, such as the home page and payment pages. Recommendations are presented in two ways: first, through screenshots of a model website prototype for a fictional municipal court, and second, through screenshots of real courts in Texas that pilot tested the prototype. Lessons from the pilot efforts in these Texas jurisdictions are embedded throughout.
Sample website content
Pilot site website content
The toolkits may be accessed at:
Together, the hope is that these products can help inspire courts to put procedural justice into practice in small but meaningful ways. Might better court websites help turn a simple online engagement into an opportunity to build trust between the public and courts? Could better signs help courts move the needle in improving court users’ experience and therefore support their legitimacy? By tackling these questions, the aim is for courts to have new tools to improve procedural justice and perceptions of fairness.
TMCEC and LaGratta Consulting LLC have since paired up for a new, related project: “We Want to Hear From You!: Municipal Courts Survey Kiosk Project.” The goal of the project is to explore another key dimension of procedural justice, namely, soliciting regular input from court users about their experience. Inviting feedback not only gives voice to court users, but also equips courts with powerful user-driven data measures to inform needed changes. Project staff have selected seven municipal courts throughout Texas to collect brief feedback from court users over a three-month pilot period. Feedback will be collected in real-time through tablet kiosks stationed in high-traffic areas of the courthouse, as well as after email communications with the court and remote court appearances, testing questions such as “Did the court treat you fairly today?” Project staff will develop a national toolkit documenting lessons by early 2021.
These projects would not be possible without the support of the State Justice Institute and the many court leaders who volunteer their time and energy to advise during the planning period and pilot test the project tools. Project staff thanks Stephanie Yim for her user experience and design expertise and for developing the project’s website prototype.