Susan Lenfestey

(WOMENSENEWS)–Each day in courtrooms across the country, cases involving alleged violence between women and men are adjudged and penalties assessed with no one present other than the parties involved, courtroom officials and the jury. No one to witness how the victim is treated. No one to take note of how a perpetrator is penalized.

In response to questions about the treatment of victims of domestic and sexual violence in their local court system, volunteers in many cities now have initiated court watch programs to document how the court system treats issues of domestic and sexual violence.

These programs are often undertaken by domestic violence coalitions, National Organization for Women chapters or National Council of Jewish Women chapters that recruit and train volunteers to monitor courtroom proceedings.

The volunteers work to create a court-community collaboration, providing a public presence that is able to observe from an impartial perspective, research the individual issues that an overworked court system cannot, propose realistic solutions and advocate for the necessary resources for improvement.

Court Watchers Focus on Domestic Violence, Custody, Sex Crimes

Court watch programs most often monitor domestic violence, sexual assault or custody cases. Those involved say court watch programs have changed the way many judges and prosecutors treat domestic violence cases. The programs also have initiated systematic changes, including specialty courts that hear only domestic violence or restraining order cases, more severe sentences and automatic orders for protection for domestic violence cases.

Silent Witness National Initiative, started in Minneapolis to recognize victims of rape and domestic violence, reports that 22 states have some kind of court watch program.

The court watch program called the Community Coalition on Family Violence in Knox County, Tenn., monitors domestic violence cases in the criminal misdemeanor court. After training seminars, court watch volunteers observe in the courtroom and take notes on their perceptions. The notes are then recorded in annual reports.

“Your very presence makes a difference,” said Sally Lighter, an attorney who runs the program. “The judges behave differently when our volunteers are in the courtroom.”

Court Watch Programs Spread Across the Country

Susan Lenfestey began the Minneapolis WATCH (which began as Women At The Court House but now also includes male volunteers) program in 1992 in response to newspaper stories about a lax, revolving-door justice system that consistently failed to take crimes of sexual assault and domestic abuse seriously.

Lenfestey recruited a group of women and, after meeting with representatives of the justice system, determined there was a strong need for a public presence in the courtroom to hold the system accountable.

Trained WATCH volunteers first entered the courtroom in Hennepin County in March 1993. The following year, WATCH released a report based on its first year of volunteer observations of the criminal justice system. The report outlined specific issues and concerns and recommended more than 30 ways in which the system could improve. Many of these issues have since been addressed by the judicial system such as establishing a special domestic violence court. WATCH also produces a court watch manuals and has sold about 350 copies in the last two years.

WATCH assembles detailed records of offenders with the most alarming and escalating behavior, including their criminal histories and their interaction with the criminal justice system. These chronologies are kept on file and are faxed to court staff when the profiled defendant is scheduled for an appearance.

Author and rape survivor Patricia Weaver Francisco first became acquainted with WATCH when she sat through another victim’s rape trial. On many days, she and the WATCH volunteer (recognizable due to their red clipboards) were the only ones observing the trial. The man on trial for rape was given the longest sentence ever awarded in Minnesota history–132 years. The man who raped Francisco was never caught, so the trial gave her an experience of justice and became a chapter in her 1999 book: “TELLING: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery.”

“I felt the importance of someone being in those seats,” said Francisco. “It felt palpable in the courtroom. Everyone sits up a little straighter when they’re being watched. I think a jury couldn’t help noticing that people were paying attention to the case.” The Omaha, Neb., court watch chapter recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. It used the Minneapolis WATCH program as its model. “We felt there were some gaps in our system,” said Tracy Grinstead-Everly, director of the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council’s Court Watch program. “We wanted to take a closer look at what was happening in our courtrooms.”

The program is an extension of the community’s domestic violence services that involved police officers, district attorneys and social services. With several months of experience under its belt the program will soon be releasing its first report. Future reports will be issued quarterly.

“The players were already there,” said Grinstead-Everly. “It wasn’t an adversarial relationship. We had their cooperation before we said anything potentially negative about them. Overall, I think our presence in the courtroom will make people do their jobs better.”

In Allen County, Ohio, Wendy Jones recently took it upon herself to begin a court watch program, without any affiliation with a community organization. In addition to organizing volunteers to observe courtroom proceedings, she keeps tabs on cases with chronic offenders and makes phone calls to alert district attorneys.

“I was tired of seeing the same kinds of cases sputter out,” said Jones. “It was frustrating. A court watch program is a great solution. We can find out where the problems are.”

Her program will issue quarterly reports that will run in her community newspaper.

By creating awareness in the community, court watch organizers hope to make a difference in the way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has. Twenty years ago, Candy Lightner started MADD after her daughter was killed by a drunk teen-age driver. In the years since, alcohol-related fatalities caused by teen-age drivers have been reduced by 64 percent.

“Court watch is an idea that’s spreading,” said Francisco. “It’s such a powerful and workable idea. It’s an outgrowth of the notion of a jury. The role of watcher feels like the missing piece. I hope eventually we’ll think it was always this way.”

Kimberly Wilmot Voss has been a journalist for the past decade. She is a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

For more information:

California NOW Family Court Report 2002:

Minneapolis WATCH:

Silent Witness National Initiative: