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Multnomah County Judicial Listening Sessions: A Case Study

 JSP Staff

Since 2015, Multnomah County, Oregon (home to Portland) has been participating in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. The Safety and Justice Challenge provides support to sites across the country to reduce the overuse of jails and racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. As part of Multnomah County’s broader reform efforts, in 2016 and 2017 the Multnomah County Circuit Court held three judicial listening sessions—community engagement events designed to give members of the public the chance to voice their experiences and concerns with the county’s justice system.

The “Perceptions of Justice” listening sessions, held in August 2016, November 2016, and February 2017 at different locations in the county, allowed community members to speak directly to judges about their perceptions of the justice system. By design, judges were prohibited from speaking or responding to community members during the sessions. Eighty-five to 200 community members and justice system stakeholders attended each event. Approximately one year after the final listening session, the court held a follow-up community conversation, during which members of the judiciary and other justice system stakeholders presented information to the community about the justice system and answered questions from the audience.

Multnomah County’s judicial listening sessions are considered a promising example of judicial engagement with the community. As part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, Justice System Partners (JSP) offered to write a case study of the sessions for judiciaries in other Safety and Justice Challenge jurisdictions that might be interested in engaging in similar activities. This case study aims to provide a road map for sites and help them overcome potential challenges.