Multnomah County Judicial Listening Sessions Offer Promising Model of Judicial Community Engagement

By JSP Team

Justice System Partners (JSP) released a case study of the Multnomah County Circuit Court’s (Portland, Oregon) “Perceptions of Justice” judicial listening sessions, which are considered to be promising examples of judicial engagement with the community. The case study, produced as part of the John D. and Catherine. T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, discusses the environment out of which the listening sessions grew, highlights the guiding principles behind the sessions, and offers recommendations to other judiciaries considering similar events.

The listening sessions were designed as a way for judges to learn from the community, to hear directly from members of the public about their experiences and concerns with the county’s justice system. The three sessions, held in 2016 and 2017, were an extension of the Multnomah County Circuit Court’s ongoing work around procedural justice, and were a step toward building a more solid foundation of trust between the judiciary and the community.

Five principles guided the court’s planning and execution of the listening sessions:

1) Judges are conveners. While judges naturally have constrictions on their roles in the policy sphere, their convening role allows them to bring together community groups in order to learn from the public.
2) Listening—only—is important. The listening-only format was established to create a safe space for the public to talk and to assure community members that they would be heard. Judges did not speak.
3) The public doesn’t departmentalize justice. Even if issues raised weren’t within judges’ control, listening to a broad range of comments would increase judges’ understanding of public perceptions of and concerns with the justice system.
4) The moderator sets the tone. The moderator set a tone of mutual respect, conveying that the judges were committed to being there, to listen to both the good and the bad.
5) Logistics matter. Each session was held in the evening in a different area of the county at a neutral, accessible location, without security or an overwhelming police presence.

Members of the Multnomah County judiciary have gained valuable information and perspective from the listening sessions, both in terms of their own community’s experiences with the justice system, as well as strategies for effective judicial engagement with the community. Among the judiciary’s recommendations to other jurisdictions are to listen with an open mind and not to underestimate the value in hearing directly from the public. As one Multnomah Circuit Court Judge puts it: “If we as the judiciary can’t take the time to hear from the people who are affected by our decisions, everyone is a little worse off.”

Read “The Multnomah County Judicial Listening Sessions: A Case Study.

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