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Court Watchers Form New National Network As Reform Tool

Advocates for court transparency have joined forces in collaboration with Grammy-winning musician Fiona Apple to launch the National Courtwatch Network. The network and its website, courtwatch.org, created a hub for the 30 independent Courtwatch organizations that operate across the United States, reports the Washington Post. The campaign launched this week also features a short film, "The Court Watchers,” narrated by actor Jesse Williams, with an original musical score from Apple, one of the national network’s highest-profile volunteers. The goal of the campaign, organizers say, is to spark a transparency movement that inspires people around the country to build upon the fight for police accountability by scrutinizing the “assembly line of injustice” playing out in America’s courtrooms.


The Courtwatch motto, splashed across the national network’s website, is that “injustice happens in empty courtrooms.” To fight that, volunteers sit in on daily bail-review hearings and other court proceedings, then document what they see through note-taking and data collection, with the intent of holding prosecutors, police, judges, jailers and defense attorneys accountable. Some organizations do that through formal committees, writing accountability letters to officials and lawmakers, and even crafting legislation to correct the problems they witness. In some places where Courtwatch programs exist, including in Maryland, observations of volunteers have inspired federal lawsuits alleging serious, systemic civil rights violations. The concept wasn't new, but a formalized system of observing and reporting on what happens in local courts had already cropped up in dozens of communities, operating mostly independently until the pandemic fostered a more organized network of watchers taking advantage of access via teleconferencing. The new campaign got its start when a potential return to in-person proceedings loomed, which Qiana Johnson, founder of Life After Release, saw as a threat to virtual court access and the volunteer network. They wanted to know how other court watching organizations nationally were handling the same challenge. So they began assembling a list of other court watching programs, mostly through Google and word of mouth. Soon, the groups were meeting once a month to trade notes, share resources and collaborate on issues affecting them all: courtroom access challenges; deaths and medical issues in the jails; state and federal legislation. Eventually, Scott Hechinger’s team at Zealous pitched the idea to formalize that grass-roots network with an official campaign that could “breathe life into the constitutional guarantee of public access to courts for accountability sake and drive people to take action,” he said.

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