During my career I have witnessed a tremendous evolution in how courts operate and provide services to the public. Not so long ago, courts basically strived to be fair and impartial forums for the resolution of disputes, and not much more. Since then, the courts have faced increasing societal changes and demands (e.g., large numbers of drug-related cases, the difficulty of obtaining affordable legal representation, and the effects of the ongoing COVID pandemic) by broadening their functions and services.
An excellent example of a court that is meeting this challenge is right here where I live – Bernalillo County, New Mexico. The Second Judicial District Court (https://seconddistrictcourt.nmcourts.gov/) has instituted many public service initiatives that work to meet the needs of our community. Earlier this month the court administrator of the court did a great job of summarizing the court’s services in an op-ed in our local newspaper: Our court delivers much more than verdicts – Albuquerque Journal (newsmemory.com). Here is the full op-ed:
Our court delivers much more than verdicts, by Katina Watson,Court Executive Officer
The Second Judicial District Court is extremely proud of our dedicated public service and progress over the years and would like to share the things we are doing that are making a difference. In the 1990s, courts mainly focused on adjudicating cases and for the most part, parties did not receive much closure. We listened. Over the last 20 years, the Second Judicial District Court has developed a myriad of dynamic programs to meet the changing needs of the community.
- Self-Help. The Court’s Self-Help Center assists thousands of self-represented litigants (litigants without counsel) navigate the judicial system by providing general, procedural information, as well as information on other resources in the community, without providing legal advice. In fiscal year 2021, the Court’s Self-Help Center provided assistance to self-represented litigants over 17,600 times.
- Mediation. The Court offers mediation and arbitration services wherein trained mediators or arbitrators facilitate communication and negotiation between parties in order to assist them in reaching a voluntary agreement, and resolution of their cases.
- Foreclosure. Foreclosure Settlement Program assists homeowners and lenders reach mutually agreeable solutions in foreclosure matters wherein a majority of cases result in loan modifications. This program assists in preventing avoidable foreclosures and providing economic stability for families and communities.
- Family Court Clinic. Court Clinic is a division within our family court that is staffed by licensed mental health professionals to conduct court-ordered services ranging from mediations, advisory consultations, and assessments related to temporary parenting arrangements and psychological and/or relocation and risks.
- Youth & Family Counseling. Youth & Family Counseling is a Children’s Court program that works with youth who enter the juvenile justice system and their families to solve problems and reduce the likelihood of the child returning to court. Examples of services offered include family therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, substance abuse counseling and anger management.
- Competency. In collaboration with the New Mexico Behavioral Health Services Division (BHSD) and Bernalillo County, the Court implemented a forensic Competency Pilot Project (Project) to timely complete competency evaluations.
- Assisted Outpatient Treatment. Assisted Outpatient Treatment is a civil court-supervised, community-based treatment program for individuals with severe mental illness. Research has shown the following for individuals who received AOT: 55% fewer recipients engaged in suicide attempts or physical harm to self; 47% fewer physically harmed others; 46% fewer damaged or destroyed property; 74% fewer participants experienced homelessness; 83% fewer experienced arrest; 87% fewer experienced incarceration; 49% fewer abused alcohol; and 48% fewer abused drugs.
- Elder Disability Initiative. The Court’s Elderly Disability Initiative (EDI) is a program created for adult Guardianship and Conservatorship cases. These cases involve adults that are unable to manage their finances property, health care or living arrangements.
- Interpreters. The Court Interpreters’ Division objective is to ensure meaningful access to court services for limited English proficient individuals. In FY2021, the division provided Spanish language interpretation services in 2,143 cases, and interpretation services in other languages in 229 cases.
- Indian Child Welfare Act Court. The Indian Child Welfare Act Court, only the sixth of its kind in the entire country, is a program that focuses on ensuring compliance with ICWA by connecting individuals with culturally specific services, assisting with tribal interactions, coordinating judicial oversight functions, conducting enhanced family and relative searches, and compiling and analyzing data.
- Pretrial Services. Pretrial Services is an evidence-based, nationally recognized program that assists in making the criminal justice process more effective by ensuring court appearances and promoting public safety and bringing more fairness to the criminal justice system. The program includes background investigations, intake and supervision.
- Treatment Courts. The Second Judicial District operates several treatment courts including a Juvenile Treatment Court, a Young Adult Court, an Adult Drug Court, a Mental Health Court and a Felony DWI Court. These programs provide a continuum of wrap around services including alcohol, drug, mental health, self-care, life skills, and intensive judicial oversight that provides long term stability, decreased recidivism, increased community safety, personal growth and overall well-being.
Navigating the court system can be complicated. The Court has developed comprehensive services to help the public maneuver through stressful and difficult cases and provide meaningful solutions and closure.
Wow, that’s quite a range of services! I am impressed by the way the court has, like so many others across the nation, expanded its services to meet the needs of the public it serves. Is your local court doing the same? Further, is your court doing a good job of informing the public about its activities? This op-ed is a great example of reaching out, being transparent, and building public trust and accountability.[i] I look forward to seeing the court continue and expand its efforts.
As always, comments about this post, and suggestions for future blog post topics, are welcome.
[i] Another example: the court recently had another op-ed published to respond to criticism of the court: Our judges work to keep the court above the legal fray – Albuquerque Journal (abqjournal.com). In this op-ed, the court explained how it must be impartial and cannot respond to most forms of criticism. Further, there was an invitation to attend hearings (in person or remotely) to see how the court actually works.