Essay: How court-watching can make our justice system fairer

Most Americans approach going to court like going to the DMV — that is, they only go when they have to. That’s unfortunate, because if more people attended criminal court proceedings, we could move the criminal justice debate beyond the bluster of punditry.

Besides, criminal courtrooms can be far more entertaining — and horrifying — than the DMV. Seeing what criminal justice looks and feels like from inside the courtroom would enhance people’s understanding of the toll the justice system has exacted on many American communities, and why law enforcement and the courts alone aren’t equipped to reduce the crime they were (ostensibly) designed to prevent.

Barring a few limited exceptions, you have a constitutional right to walk right in and observe court proceedings. At first, you’ll notice how mundane it all seems. When there is no press and no public audience, the atmospherics of many criminal courtrooms make them feel like an assembly line. Some judges process dozens of criminal cases in a morning, imposing decades of jail time before lunch. In some cases, the evidence itself is rote — like a police officer at his desk with a joystick and a pole camera, observing marijuana passed between neighbors miles away. Defendants rotate in and out, but otherwise, it is the same people every hour, every day: judge, stenographer, courtroom clerk, police liaison. This routinized environment allows biases to thrive and caricature to take the place of facts.

One way to break the stupor is to change the audience. Public court attendance is good for both the observer and the system. As a public defender, I often insist that my clients bring their family, friends, clergy, and mentors to court.

This sometimes has more impact than my best legal argument. It reminds the judge that my client is part of a larger community, one that took the time to come to court, and can perhaps provide accountability. But there is a less obvious dynamic at play: The judge and prosecutor must now perform their duties under the gaze of the public for whom they work.

Their presence demands accountability and individualized justice from the court. This effect increases when random, impartial spectators arrive. Inconspicuous court-watching provides an uncurated account of what justice looks like, and viewers get to see what really happens with tax dollars marked for police and prosecution.

If more people attended criminal court, we could advance criminal justice. Here’s how