WATCH was founded in 1992 with the goal of holding the justice system in Hennepin County, Minnesota, USA, accountable to its core purposes—protecting the public and ensuring victim safety. The mission of WATCH is to make the courts more effective and responsive in handling cases of violence, particularly against women and children, and to create a more informed and involved public.
The catalyst for WATCH’s founding was the brutal sexual assault and murder of a young Minneapolis, Minnesota woman by a paroled prisoner with an extensive history of sex crimes. This highly publicized case prompted a group of citizens to meet with representatives of the justice system and women’s advocates to seek solutions. It was determined that a strong public presence in the courtroom could help hold the justice system more accountable for its actions. Trained volunteers first entered Hennepin County courtrooms in March 1993, and have been a constant presence ever since.
Courtroom monitoring is WATCH’s primary strategy in creating lasting change in the justice system. Through daily monitoring, WATCH identifies trends and common occurrences that impede justice. WATCH has identified troublesome patterns such as victim safety concerns being minimized, chronic offenders going through the system without serious consequences, high risk offenders being released without bail, and other symptoms of system failure. When patterns become evident, WATCH undertakes further investigation and research into these problems, and seeks systemic solutions.
WATCH holds the justice system to its highest ideals and challenges it to improve outcomes for victims. It provides feedback to judges, attorneys and other court personnel; and informs the public about the local criminal justice system.
(History courtesy of WATCH, Minnesota.)
How WATCH court monitoring works:
Court monitors are physically present in the courtroom on a regular basis. These individuals are volunteers and staff of the monitoring agency who have received training in the criminal and civil justice processes, courtroom decorum and monitoring goals. They monitor court appearances for cases identified by the monitoring agency. The regular presence of monitors reminds all justice system personnel, including judges, attorneys, clerks and administrative personnel, that they are accountable to the public and that the public is interested in what happens in the courtroom in cases of violence against women and girls.
All monitors carry red clipboards so that they will be recognized by court staff. Monitors are trained to watch for and note such things as the following: judicial demeanor, the use of inappropriate humor, timeliness, audibility, acknowledgement of and sensitivity toward victims and victim safety, clarity of explanations given by judges and attorneys, and disruptions in the courtroom. For specific hearings, volunteers are asked to note particular rulings, comments and data that are outlined on monitoring forms tailored to that hearing.
Monitor notes are reviewed by staff, who follow up with appropriate personnel, including judges, attorneys, advocates and probation officers. This follow-up may be to investigate a case further or to comment on the case, either complimenting a judge or other system personnel or pointing out a problem with the way the case was handled. Monitoring agency staff may review court records and files to obtain information about individual cases or patterns and trends in the justice system.
Staff may publicize the results of cases through newsletters or through the media to promote public awareness of these cases and their impact on society.
Monitors focus on cases of violence against women. In many jurisdictions, justice systems have traditionally failed to take crimes of violence against women, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, seriously. Cases of violence against women and girls are prioritized in order to improve the justice system’s response and thereby promote victim safety and ensure offender accountability.
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