Making It the People's Court

Hoping to foster trust in the legal system, some officials are seeking ways to improve the judicial experience

Whether it's a $10,000 lawsuit or a $30 traffic ticket, few people enjoy their experiences with the justice system. Researchers are taking a new look at those experiences and are reshaping police and court procedures. Although no one is promising to take the sting out of being sued or stopped for speeding, some officials are trying to make the system fairer and more convenient.

Tom Tyler, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has made a career out of studying what citizens expect from the justice system. He has found that most people, regardless of race or income level, want the same thing: to be treated fairly and respectfully by those in authority.

''If you go to court, you don't react to your experience by thinking only 'Did I win? Did I lose? How much did I get?''' Mr. Tyler says. ''Instead, people are concerned about the process. Was the way the judge resolved the case fair? Was the process by which the divorce settlement was reached fair?'''

In his book, ''Why People Obey the Law,'' Tyler analyzes how experience with the police or courts affects citizens. He concludes that most people obey laws because they feel a moral obligation, not because they fear punishment. ''To a large degree,'' Tyler says, ''people are very moral in their orientation to the law and are very much influenced by their own sense of what is the moral thing to do.''

When he's not writing or teaching students, Tyler presents his research to groups of judges throughout the country. According to Tyler, judges and other justice system officials must learn to see their actions through the eyes of those they serve. But, he cautions, justice that is delivered in a better package can't ensure a healthy justice system. ''We have to focus on developing a moral commitment to the law and legal institutions,'' he says. ''We have to focus on rebuilding a moral climate that supports the law.''

That type of commitment can be fostered in the family, school, church, or even by law enforcement agencies that embrace community policing, legal experts say.

Community policing involves foot patrols and improved public relations. But its heart is an effort to build respect for the law through a better relationship between police and the community. ''Community policing takes the relationship between police and the public to a different level,'' says Drew Diamond, director of the Community Policing Consortium. ''It's a paradigm shift in the way police services are delivered. It's about engaging community partnerships in problem-solving.''

But police theory sometimes doesn't live up to actual practices. For more than a decade, Wayne Kerstetter, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has studied Chicago police files regarding investigations of complaints of excessive force. He found that without physical evidence or an independent witness, complaints were seldom accepted as true.

Mr. Kerstetter says that when police investigate complaints of excessive force, the process must seem fair as well as be fair. ''You should increase the opportunity for the complainant and the police officer to tell their sides of the story,'' he says. ''The process should ensure that citizens end up feeling respected, that their complaints were taken seriously, and that they got attention from the authorities.''

In Virginia, court users have been getting a lot of attention from officials for the past few years. In 1991, the Virginia Judicial Council's Consumer Research and Service Development Project started asking Virginians about their court experiences. About 2,700 residents have given their opinions though telephone surveys, focus groups, suggestion boxes, and interviews after trials.

The feedback will help shape the future of Virginia's court services, says Kathy Mays, director of judicial planning for the Virginia Supreme Court. ''We found that citizens evaluate their experience with the courts both on their level of satisfaction with the outcome of the case as well as on the degree of difficulty they encounter just going through the process of doing business with the courts.''

When the emotional stakes of a case are high, that process can make a few months feel like a few years. Elaine Haas, a mail carrier and mother of four, is going through a divorce in Powhatan, Va.

Although she complains that the process is ''very, very slow,'' she still appreciates the way deputies treated her children while she was in a hearing. ''They were nice to us,'' she says. ''One deputy had a Nintendo, and they played games with my children.''

Even people who lose their cases can feel good about the process, according to consumer research conducted in Virginia. ''Some felt, 'At least I had my day in court, and I was treated decently. It gave me heightened confidence in the judicial system,' '' Ms. Mays says. That confidence is essential for the future of the entire justice system, she adds.

''Basically, if you don't have public trust and confidence in the courts, our system won't survive,'' says Pam Casey of the National Center for State Courts. Ms. Casey is director of an upcoming national project that will examine ways to improve the public's trust and confidence in the courts.

In October, her group and the American Judicature Society will sponsor a national town-hall meeting on the courts. Around the nation, 10 state and local groups will be linked via satellite to a central conference site. Citizens, lawyers, and judges will meet at each site to share their concerns and to showcase local methods of improving public confidence in the courts.

The planning for the meeting reflects a new way of thinking about the justice system. Citizen and consumer are one and the same. ''We have to become more responsive to the public, developing more of a consumer orientation,'' Casey says.

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