It's About Access-Using Virtual Court to Bring Real Justice

By Carl T. Guthrie, Kannon Moore, and Matthew Johnston.

On August 11th, 2020, TPLP tried the nation's first virtual criminal jury trial.

        Real justice comes down to access. Like most things, the haves say “Stop! Don’t change anything! What happens if…”And the have-nots keep losing.

        Access to justice isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about getting a seat at the

table--getting access to the courthouse, a lawyer, and a jury that truly represents the community.

        Claiming that juries today actually represent the community is at best naïve, at worst lying. The justice system is failing. It was failing before COVID-19. It disproportionately fails people living in poverty and people of color.

        The jury trial is how we check power imbalances, how we police the police, how we anchor the system to the values of our community.

       Technology has increased access to education, employment, and health care.  It has the power to increase access to justice in ways we have never seen.

        Here’s how it works now. The court sends jury summons to people all across the county. Everyone is expected to go down to the courthouse and do their civic duty.

        But Maria doesn’t have a car, and there is no bus route from her home to the courthouse. Ralph lives on a small farm at the edge of the county, two hours from downtown, and cannot afford the gas or the time. Alex cares for a mother whose health issues mean that she cannot be left alone for the day. None of these people will make it to jury duty.

        Henry retired from a long career and finished paying off his mortgage years ago. He and his wife have two cars and a comfortable nest egg.  He wanted to spend Monday on the golf course, but will be proud to perform his civic duty instead. We now have a jury pool that is mostly Henrys. But our community is made up of Marias and Alexes and Ralphs too.

        In a virtual courtroom, Maria can participate from home, without having to find a way to the courthouse. Alex can check on their mother during breaks provided by the judge. Ralph won’t run out of gas on the way into town.

       

        Most people charged with crimes hit the same barriers. But when they can’t afford to make it to court, if they live in a legal desert – lacking access to the courthouse, to a lawyer, to justice – they can end up with a warrant for their arrest.  People faced with criminal charges are disproportionately likely to be people of color, people experiencing poverty, or people who suffer from mental health issues.  If they do make it to court, they put their fate in the hands of a jury of Henrys.

 

        Virtual court is an innovation. It won’t fix every problem. It won’t fix systems that exclude minorities.  It won’t fix income inequality. But it helps. It could yield a more representative jury pool than we’ve ever seen, get people who are accused out of the legal desert. It will require commitment. It will require change. But we aren’t breaking a perfect system – we’re improving a broken one.

        When only the lucky few with the time, means, and support to navigate the maze can access the justice system, that isn’t justice. We have the opportunity to make the system better. We have the opportunity to provide access to people who have never had it. Instead of sticking our heads in the sand and refusing to adapt, let’s answer opportunity’s call.

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