The Need for Greater Sensitivity in the Court System: A One Day Perspective

By Olivia D. Gordon, CFCC Student Fellow 2019-2020

In the legal system, the role of the court as arbitrator, administrator, and decision-maker, at times, makes it the most pivotal aspect of the entire legal system. In Baltimore, a city with a little more than 600,000 residents, the several courts have a major presence, largely because many residents of the city likely will at some point have contact with the court system. The question then becomes, “Are the courts adequately prepared to handle the many issues and problems of the people from a struggling city, who are largely Black and living in poverty?” I have been to court many times through many internships, curiosity, and wanting to be aware of what exactly happens when you step into the courthouse. It is a place that for many can seem daunting. There is, of course, a job to do for each actor in the system. For the administration, the judiciary, the security, and the clerks, the court house has always been a place of order. However, within that order, there should be room for greater cultural sensitivity. From my one day perspective, it is evident that several aspects of that need for sensitivity are lacking.

From my visit to the Family Division of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, it was clear that there is an obvious passion to help people. Even with resources, it is impossible to help everyone, but the Family Division works to educate, reunify, and assist in a way that is not a “savior complex.” Those in the courthouse utilizing the services are more likely to be Black, of a lower socio-economic range, and have completed a lower education level based on city statistics. In Maryland, 46% of the Circuit Court cases are family law cases. According to the latest census statistics, 24% of Baltimore’s population live below the poverty line, which is $20,090 a year for a family of three. Of the city’s 600,000 residents, 63% are Black, 27% are White, 5% are Latino, and 5% are identified as Asian and other. With nearly one-fourth of the families classified as impoverished, it is highly likely that at some point in their lives, these families will come into contact with the court system. With 71% of litigants representing themselves, there is a great need for holistic assistance.

When I visited the Family Division of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, it was difficult not to notice that the people in charge and the administration are generally of a different socioeconomic class and racial makeup than those in need of court services. It was very clearly White and Black respectively. That is not to say that other ethnic groups are not using the court system, but, statistically and based on my observations that day, each person waiting for help was Black. At one point we went into the Pro Se Litigation Assistance Office. There I observed a child support kiosk, patrons of the court users waiting for help, and a pregnant, incarcerated woman in handcuffs, which almost made my heart stop. All of them were Black.

Even dressed in my fine clothing and heels, I could not help but feel a coldness and no sense of welcome when entering the marble building where I was subjected to a security search. It felt extremely intimidating. At one point, one of the Caucasian members of our group set off the alarm. The security force, all of whom were Black, sent the visitor through without further investigation. They said they knew it was her shoes that triggered the alarm, and so they did not even wand her. It made me wonder why for some people they did not assume there was any threat; whereas, others got checked, even when they did not set off the alarm. We were told several times that the offices are working on getting plexi-glass for protection, which is already in use in the clerk’s office. While I understand that there is a need to keep the court staff safe, imagine how that might feel to someone on the other side of that protective barrier – someone who is already battling whatever issue led them to court that day. In my eyes it is akin to animals in a zoo — we, in our suits, dresses, and trousers as the spectators, and those in need of court services as the animals. I cannot imagine how mortifying it must feel, from the person at the child support kiosk to the woman in handcuffs. I felt that I was invading people’s space, as people looked at us, and we tried our best not to further encroach on their hardship.

We were exposed to a very different perspective from the judges. Judge Kendra Ausby recounted how she prays for everyone involved in her cases before she steps on the bench. As a Christian I found that comforting. Judge Ausby wants what’s best for everyone involved. She knows she has a job to do, to be fair and adjudicate, but by praying it demonstrates a level of sensitivity not always seen in court. Moreover, Judge Barry Williams made it very clear that staying away from media coverage of certain cases is vital to viewing cases fairly, in order to do what is necessary in the role as a judge. It felt like the judges were attempting to connect with those in front of them, rather than put up barriers, even if those barriers are for safety. Maybe the judges see some part of themselves in the parties who come before them. Maybe they recognize that the positions could easily be switched, and they might be the ones requiring the services of the Family Division. The judges seemed to understand the delicate balance between order and cultural sensitivity.

When I visited the Family Division, I could not escape the feeling that the people needing services the most look just like me. It forced me to ask myself, “How different would my life be, if I had been exposed to lead, poor education systems, and poverty?” In my opinion, while the judges in the court system exemplified great sensitivity, other aspects of the court system could benefit from greater cultural sensitivity training. To see a pregnant woman shackled by her waist, hands, and feet was disheartening and somewhat traumatic. It seemed there was a complete disregard for her dignity. Similarly, security must be fair. The officers should not judge people based on how they are dressed. The courts should take an even more active role in requiring all of its employees to be trained on implicit bias and cultural sensitivity. Such training could help bridge the gap that exists between those the court serves and those who run the court system. Without that level of sensitivity, the court remains intimidating and not a place where people feel comfortable going for help.

3 thoughts on “The Need for Greater Sensitivity in the Court System: A One Day Perspective

  1. Olivia,
    Thank you for this post. I agree with you especially with your observation of the Family Division. I often reflect on how I look just like those being helped. While I know I am not in their position I know that I can easily be, thus, forcing me to always think with a “what if it was me” attitude. I believe thinking like this will impact not only those whom look like us but everyone that is serviced in the judicial system.

  2. Carlisa,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I just couldn’t help but notice that anyone we saw could so easily have been me. The courts need to do better, there is absolutely no way pregnant woman should be shackled under any circumstances.

  3. Olivia,
    I come from spending a significant period of time in courthouses in Annapolis, Baltimore City, and in the US District Court. What I have been reminded of time and again is that no one comes to court in their best moments, and that problems that bring people to court are universal. Pain is pain and humiliation is humiliation. What is different is a population of a city being perceived as being less than, as somehow deserving poor treatment, and of a system that has no shame in not doing better for the people it is supposed to serve. Simple human decency and dignity do not cost money. Changing the way people are spoken to or are spoken about is free. I shared your feelings that day, it was definitely a shock to the system on many levels. We have to do better.

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