Brian Sonenstein is a reporter covering incarceration and the prison abolition movement. He is a columnist for the Portland Phoenix, co-founder of Shadowproof.com, and co-host of the Beyond Prisons podcast. Shadowproof.com/beyond-prisons

If Cumberland County’s new district attorney, Jonathan Sahrbeck, won’t shed light on prosecutions, then the public may have to do it for him.

Sahrbeck has resisted calls for transparency in the DA’s office. He told the Phoenix he would maybe consider a limited data-collection program, but said it’s not necessary because the office is beyond reproach.

Sahrbeck believes voters hold the DA accountable every four years. But is this really possible when prosecutors operate so far from public view? Has this been effective given the number of people living with poverty, mental illness, and substance-use disorders in our jails and prisons?

In New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and elsewhere, a Court Watch movement is providing transparency and oversight on prosecutions. Court Watch groups train volunteers to attend court and collect data and observations on what transpires. They analyze and release their findings to the public, and those findings inform organizing efforts.

Nina Luo is a Court Watch Coordinator with VOCAL-NY. They use radical transparency to “shift courtroom policies, practices, and culture towards a more equitable New York City.”

Court Watchers see how and when prosecutors request bail, their plea discussions, qualitative details of cases, and other aspects of court they couldn’t access without ordering transcripts of every proceeding (which don’t provide a full picture, either).

Their work began with the election of Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, who successfully ran on a progressive reform platform. “We wanted to hold him accountable to that,” Luo said.

Court Watch is primarily driven and led by volunteers. Luo said her group trained over 500 people since January, and between 150 and 250 regularly court-watch. They have around one shift per day, per arraignment court in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with plans to expand in the coming year.

Their volunteers range in age from 15 to 80 or older, and include students, grandparents, formerly incarcerated or justice-involved people, lawyers, mothers, and “all types of New Yorkers who care about justice or are interested in learning more.”

It can be a “radicalizing, eye-opening experience” for those who haven’t been to court before, she said.

“In just a few hours, you see 20, 25, 30 people get dragged through arraignment, for two-to-three minutes each, treated with an utter lack of humanity or respect even though the decisions made in arraignment can impact them for the rest of their lives.”

The group publishes reports like the one they released this month on drug policy, which drew from over 423 hours of court-watching by 132 trained volunteers. They found, for example, that people are still arbitrarily prosecuted for marijuana offenses despite claims by DA’s that they would no longer pursue those cases.

They found law enforcement using predatory policing techniques like entrapment to secure arrests and charges. And they shared vignettes of individual court appearances to remind the public there are real human lives within the statistics.

Their website, CourtWatchNYC.org, is a powerful source of information as well. For example, it shows how reforms, like pretrial risk assessment schemes, actually play out. And it tracks prosecutions by individual assistant district attorneys, who handle most cases but are less visible than their elected bosses.

Court Watch is more than a simple data collection project. “We are an organizing power,” Luo said, adding that “by expanding our circle of New Yorkers who care about this issue, we are building power.”

But it’s not without its challenges. The group found that judges, prosecutors, and court officers sometimes refuse to use microphones, making it difficult for observers to hear. She noted ”some elderly and hard of hearing people have even quit Court Watch as a result.”

Luo pointed out these issues impact family members of the accused, which has led the group to prepare a campaign for improved accessibility and transparency in the courts.

“The public has a right to know what's being done in the name of ‘the People’ every day,” Luo declared.

As Cumberland County enters the Sahrbeck era, Court Watch may be essential.

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