There’s a popular refrain, often incorrectly attributed to Plato, that asks “Who watches the watchmen,” in reference to the ability of the public to properly ensure that those charged with administering justice are doing their job. But when it comes to the courts of Suffolk County, they’re being closely watched by the volunteers of the organization CourtWatch MA.
CourtWatch MA began with the goal of having a better understanding of what goes on inside the courtrooms of the commonwealth. Co-founder Atara Rich-Shea said during an interview with Boston Public Radio on Monday that her experience as a public defender taught her that there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the court process, and as a result many people are unfairly trapped within the system, simply for not understanding what happens in court.
“We have some of the most closed courts in the country. We don’t know what’s happening in them. We don’t know what our DAs are doing, or our judges,” Rich-Shea said. “There's this idea in our society from media and television shows [about] what goes on in courtrooms, and we heard over and over again from our volunteers [that] it’s nothing like that. Further we heard, ‘I can’t believe what it is.’”
CourtWatch MA exists as an educational tool for the public, but its volunteers have also been methodically gathering data on the court system that the government has refused to hand over. In Massachusetts, documents from most state agencies are assumed to be covered by the state’s public records law, but many district attorneys' offices often refuse to hand over documents, citing various exemptions from the law.
“This isn’t the most efficient [way] of getting data. ... Our government should be giving it to us,” Rich-Shea said. “Hundreds of people hours gathering what little we were able to tell is not efficient, it’s not effective, [but] I’m thankful to all our volunteers.”
Recently, the group finished a project tracking District Attorney Rachael Rollins' first 100 days in office. Co-founder Mallory Hanora said that while Rollins' election and promise to push for less incarceration gained a lot of support within the criminal justice reform community, the group also wanted to make sure the new district attorney stayed true to her promises.
“The promises that District Attorney Rollins made ... people got excited about that,” Hanora said. “People were into the idea of prosecuting less people overall and holding less people in pre-trial detention largely through some of the organizing that community has already been doing for years.”
After 100 days, however, the group found that Rollins still had not completely followed through on her campaign promises. For example, in her first three weeks in office, the group documented that of 259 cases that involved charges Rollins said she would decline to prosecute, 46% of the cases still advanced.
While Hanora and Rich-Shea may not be completely satisfied with all of Rollins decisions, they also said that the goal isn’t to examine Rollins as a figure or a personality, but rather look at how policy decisions are being made in the DA’s office.
“For us, this is about seeing less people being prosecuted and seeing less people in pretrial detentions, and we want to affirm the belief that there is a difference between accountability and incarceration,” Hanora said.