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July 27, 2021 Feature

Outreach Programs Thrive in Virtual Settings During COVID-19

By Judge Richard Fruin

The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions required adaption in all walks of life, particularly in public forums. The justice system learned to adapt in many ways, including in its outreach to the public. The pandemic did not stop judicial outreach programs, but it changed them, and the changes will make judicial outreach better.

Judicial outreach refers to organized efforts by courts to educate the public about the work of judges. It is recognized as an official judicial function. California adopted this standard for judicial administration in 1999:

Judicial participation in community outreach activities should be considered an official judicial function to promote public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice.

The American Bar Association, when it revised its Model Code of Judicial Conduct in 2003, added this comment to Canon 1.2 (defining a judge’s personal behavior): “A judge should initiate and participate in community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice.”

In the past, outreach programs have been structured so that judges met with live audiences, usually outside the courthouse. Outreach programs have become defined by their audiences. There are programs designed for school audiences, for adult audiences, and for young adults (including minorities) to acquaint them with careers in the justice system.

Courts discovered an upside while learning how to use virtual platforms for judicial outreach programs. Judges are effective presenters to live audiences about the work of the courts, but judicial time is limited. Judges are the most limiting resource needed for successful outreach programs. By appearing remotely, however, judges will be able to reach larger audiences, and do so more often, all without having to leave the courthouse.

The California Judges Association (CJA) in 2019 resolved to present every several years a Judicial Outreach Award to identify, recognize, and promote judicial outreach programs.1 The CJA wanted the award to be given for effective judicial outreach demonstrated in response to the selection criteria. The CJA Foundation committed to giving a $1,000 cash grant to the award-winning program. As fate would have it, the outreach programs eligible for consideration were those that survived the pandemic restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19 in the years 2020 and 2021.

CJA kicked off a competition for the inaugural award in January 2021. CJA asked courts with an award-eligible outreach program to apply on the Survey Monkey website. To hurry up the process, the award committee also contacted outreach programs to get applications. The application process used a Survey Monkey format to obtain standardized and comparable response data. That process also minimized the need for staff time by permitting committee members to view the responses online. The Survey Monkey form requested answers to 17 questions. These were the core questions:

  • Audience(s) to which the outreach program is presented.
  • Subject matter that is presented through the outreach program.
  • Step-by-step procedure used to “build” an audience for the program.
  • Role of court staff in organizing/presenting the program.
  • All calendar dates when the program was presented.
  • Number of judges/commissioners who participated in the program.
  • Surveys from audience participants; ratings received.
  • Court resources devoted to the program and estimated cost.

Materials developed for outreach programs could be submitted to a CJA Dropbox.

The award committee nominated three programs to receive the award. The CJA board is to make the final selection. Each nominated program uses the internet to present a virtual outreach program. Each program addresses a different virtual audience, and each has special strengths. The three programs nominated to the CJA board were Teen Court, Judges in the Classroom, and Virtual Townhalls.

Teen Court is a youth diversion program in which teenagers charged with a misdemeanor, infraction, or rule violation are judged in an evidentiary trial by a peer group. Minors who graduate from Teen Court say they were profoundly affected by the experience and motivated to improve their behavior. Courts learned how to present Teen Court remotely—by permitting the numerous individual participants to meet and interact over a virtual platform.

Judges in the Classroom (JIC) is a collaboration between judges and teachers to present standards-based lesson plans to teach the fundamentals of the justice system to students. Judges appear in the classroom remotely and participate with the teacher to present the lesson plan and answer questions. The remote capability is critical: If judges are to be available to all schools, it can only be done statewide over a virtual platform.

Virtual Townhalls is a technology-enabled program that offers courts an opportunity to provide information and obtain feedback about current justice issues from the community. The courts in one California county used a virtual platform to convene townhalls to discuss bias and racism in the justice system in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

Teen Court

Teen Court functions as an actual court. The minor defendant, advised by a parent/guardian, is given the opportunity to have his/her guilt to a nonviolent offense decided by a jury of student peers and to be sentenced to a rehabilitation plan recommended by the peer jury. Judges supervise the proceedings; the Probation Department supervises the defendant’s compliance with the rehabilitation plan. The minor can have the conviction removed from the public record upon successful completion of the rehabilitation plan.

Teen Court requires a substantial time commitment from students, who must be instructed to perform their roles as jury members, clerks, bailiffs, and counsel teams, and from judges and attorneys to oversee the Teen Court trials. Students in Teen Court programs learn how to participate in the justice system. Students must exercise critical thinking to decide issues of criminal responsibility and, if guilt is found, to create a sentencing recommendation to achieve restorative justice. The Teen Court jury must devise a creative sentencing that will lead the defendant to recognize and learn from his/her mistakes. The sentencing options can include participating in academic tutoring, receiving professional counseling, attending after-school programs, mentoring, providing community service, and writing letters of apology.

The Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC) sponsors Teen Courts in 45 high schools.2 Before the pandemic, over 100 judges presided over live Teen Court sessions, typically hearing two trials each month. Many justice partners support Teen Courts. These partners include the nonprofit (and fundraising) Parents, Educators & Students in Action (PESA), the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the County Probation Department, and law students and college students who volunteer to be proctors in the Teen Court trials. Teen Courts, on the school side, are supported by administrators, teachers, and staff. PESA provides training for Teen Court to the judges, proctors, advisors, and students at each school participating in Teen Court. Teen Court is included in the high school curriculum, and students receive credit for their participation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed high schools in March 2020, Teen Court quickly transitioned to a Zoom platform to communicate with students who were communicating virtually from home. The transition has worked remarkably well. Zoom provides multiple breakout rooms with easy movement between them. Students log in using their personal devices or school computers. Judges log in from their courtroom or personal computers. An advantage of the virtual program is that a judge can “attend” and participate in a high school–based Teen Court anywhere in the county.

The LASC staff or PESA staff act as the Zoom host. The defendant minor, his/her parent/guardian, and a caseworker/probation officer are placed in a breakout room. The student jurors and audience are in another breakout room. At the beginning of the Teen Court session, the host places the minor, the parent/guardian, the caseworker/probation officer, and the judge in a breakout room. The judge informs the minor of the nature of the proceedings and answers any questions from the minor or parent/guardian. After this “arraignment,” they are moved to the main room to begin the trial.

During the trial, the audience members and school personnel are asked to turn off their cameras, thus removing them from the monitor, leaving only the jurors, the minor defendant, and the judge visible on the monitor.

The “chat function” is used so that the proctors can communicate with the student jurors to assist them with legal issues without disrupting the trial itself. For example, some Teen Court formats allow jury members to ask the witnesses questions. A proctor then might respond to a student inquiry by chatting back, “what are the elements of this crime?” or “what testimony was relevant to proving the point?”

Once the testimony is received, and all jury questions are answered, the jurors are instructed about the legal elements applicable to the charges. The student jury is provided with written jury instructions and a special verdict. The jury is then moved into a breakout room to deliberate. While the jury is deliberating, the judicial officers meet with the student audience and answer questions. When the jury returns with a verdict, each juror is polled on his/her answer to the questions on the verdict form, and the judge keeps track of the answers.

In Los Angeles County, 157 Teen Court trials were conducted remotely in the year 2020. Over 100 bench officers participated as Teen Court judges.

SHADES is an adaptation of Teen Court to adjudicate hate crimes. SHADES is an acronym for “Stop Hate and Delinquency by Empowering Students.” Under SHADES, minors accused of hate crimes or bullying have their case decided by a jury of their peers. Student jurors for this program attend a one-week training program at the Museum of Tolerance. If the teen jury finds the accused minor guilty of a hate crime, the jury will recommend a rehabilitation plan to include a six-month probationary sentence and imposing as probationary conditions the minor’s attendance at a remediation program and his/her meeting monthly with volunteer (and SHADES-trained) judges. Schools have advised that students processed through the SHADES sentencing programs have not re-offended on their campuses.

SHADES benefits school administrators in providing a tool to address the causes of campus tensions, and, hopefully, acts to reduce bullying based on social stereotypes.

Since the inception of the program in 2012, over 600 school students have attended the SHADES Junior Training Institute at the Museum of Tolerance. Every year Teen Courts with SHADES training have held trials to address hate crimes arising from antagonisms based on religion, gender, race, and actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Judges in the Classroom

Judges in the Classroom (JIC) is a joint program between the California Chief Justice3 and California’s Superintendent of Education. The superintendent’s support ensures the program will be utilized in public schools statewide.

Under JIC, judges collaborate with teachers to present a civics lesson. JIC’s website serves as a virtual meeting place for teachers and judges. Teachers can use the website to find a judge to visit their classroom. Lesson plans can be downloaded from the website. The lesson plans are standards-based: The scripts have been vetted by teacher committees appointed by the Superintendent. Various lesson plans are available for use from the third through 12th grades. The lesson plans use scripts, playlets, and handouts to educate students about the justice system, covering such topics as government’s three branches, the adoption (and enforcement) of rules of social behavior (laws), the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the use of a trial to test evidence, and the role of judges. Variations in the script may be improvised by the teacher and the judge. Some judges provide their own PowerPoints for the class discussion.

The sign-up process is online. Teachers submit a form to request a judge; participating judges indicate their availability. Some courts provide a staff coordinator to scout for judges to respond to a teacher’s particular request, for instance, for a Spanish-speaking judge. The judge will contact the teacher to discuss the lesson plan and agree on a date for the judge’s participation. The pre-meeting with the teacher is important for a successful outreach program, even though it is done by telephone. After the class, the teachers are required to provide an evaluation.

JIC is designed to be offered to schools in the entire state. The Chief Justice’s Committee tested the program with in-person judge visits to classrooms in Butte and San Diego Counties. When COVID-19 closed the schools, the program transitioned to a virtual platform. Over the past year, all JIC programs have been presented by judges appearing remotely over a virtual platform that made them visible to students (who themselves are attending school over a virtual platform). This virtual platform allows the judge to see and interact with the students.

At present, the JIC is working with schools in 13 counties. The program has signed up more than 100 judges to make virtual presentations. The program is expected to continue and expand. Teachers’ responses to the virtual JIC have been favorable. One teacher commented:

Thank you so much to the program and Judge Dhanidina for the awesome opportunity my students had. My students were engaged and actively listening to the information being provided and explained by [the] Judge. It truly was a wonderful experience for my students, so much so that they continue to ask questions on the subject and whether we will receive another visit. The subject matter that was covered . . . was aligned to our standards. The visit enhanced my students’ understanding of the subject. Students were engaged in critical thinking and were eager participants with thought-provoking questions.

Likewise, responses from judge participants have been favorable. One San Diego judge wrote:

It was a very positive experience. I started with a virtual tour of the courtroom, which students of all ages seemed to like. The Riley materials are excellent, particularly for seniors, as they lead to wide-ranging discussions about individual rights, how to exercise them respectfully during a police encounter, and understanding the privacy they sacrifice when putting information out on social media. No improvements suggested. This was very well managed in San Diego.

JIC programs offered through remote technology will become a principal means for judicial outreach to California students due to four factors: Virtual technology will permit more judges to participate; the technology allows judges to participate remotely so they can meet with students without interrupting their other judicial responsibilities; the use of preapproved lesson plans will reduce a judge’s preparation time; and many teachers, due to the approval of the superintendent of education, will be encouraged to integrate virtual visits by judges in their civics classes.

Virtual Townhalls

Virtual Townhalls is a public forum created by the San Bernardino Superior Court. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, three trial court judges met to imagine a means to address issues of racism raised by the nationwide protests—at a time when the pandemic had closed down group meetings. They conceived Virtual Townhalls as a means to engage the community in a dialogue about the justice system. Within two months, the judges created a program timeline, established agendas, and enlisted participation from other government bodies. They recruited an online audience for three hour-long virtual townhalls on these topics and dates:

  • Civil Unrest and Racism: What Are We Doing?, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at 12 p.m.
  • Civil Unrest and Racism: What Are We Doing? Part II, Thursday, September 17, 2020, at 12 p.m.
  • Eliminating Bias: Addressing Mental Health in the Justice System, Thursday, March 25, 2021, at 12 p.m.

The virtual townhalls provided an opportunity for all justice agencies to describe what they were doing to eliminate bias and racism while providing services to the public. The format was structured to answer questions about the justice system and to hear community concerns (feedback), particularly about the criminal justice system. The Virtual Townhalls achieved these purposes. The online audience exceeded expectations. One audience member in her survey response said:

These topics are timely and most necessary and there was diversity manifested in the questions and opinions presented here. . . . Thank you for this type of townhall meeting. It is an excellent proactive tool in promoting mutual understanding and respect between the community and the judiciary.

The judges enlisted court staff under the direction of the public information officer to bring this concept into reality in less than two months. The public information officer set up a schedule with a timeline of events and a checklist to ensure objectives were achieved on schedule.

The judges selected WebEx to provide the virtual platform because it had a greater audience capacity (up to 1,000 participants) than competing videoconference services. The court technology staff created links for all the scheduled meetings and rehearsals, and they tracked registrations as the townhall dates approached. In addition, the tech staff provided attendance counts and rosters to build listservs for future townhalls.

The challenge was to build an online audience to engage in an interactive dialogue about faults—perceived and real—in the justice system. The organizers undertook a series of tasks. The first task was to identify key outside organizations to ensure that promotions were targeted at their members. The second task was to develop a topical agenda and enlist panelists to answer questions from an online audience. The third task was to build an audience to attend a virtual program presented at lunchtime midweek. The court distributed press releases, sent email blasts, and promoted the townhalls on social media. The social media advertising included ad space on Facebook and Twitter. The internet ads displayed a QR code to facilitate registration. A banner ad was posted on the court’s homepage. The court also asked its interagency contacts to repost the court’s flyer on their social media networks. All these efforts broadened the audience demographics and encouraged public attendance.

The online audience could see and hear all the panelists on a split screen. The panelists who participated in the first two townhalls were the presiding judge, the district attorney, the public defender, a county supervisor, the assembly member, the undersheriff, the County Bar president, and the deputy director for the County Health and Human Services Department. The panelists gave an overview of their agency’s role in the justice system and spoke about their agency’s response to issues of racism and civil unrest in the summer of 2020.

For the first Virtual Townhall, 258 people preregistered to attend, with 172 attending in the online audience. Those attending could pose questions by using the chat function. The questions were anonymous to encourage the audience to present comments or questions no matter how controversial. The judges acted as moderators and directed the questions to the panelists.

The second Virtual Townhall, titled Civil Unrest and Racism: What Are We Doing? Part II, was a more structured discussion and provided a robust Q&A session. The questions spanned all justice agencies because panelists representing each were visible to the online audience. The attendance at the second Virtual Townhall was 98, with 188 people preregistered. One hundred percent of those answering the online survey said they would be interested in attending later townhall meetings.

The court, through the Virtual Townhalls, is reaching out for an interactive dialogue to obtain feedback about its performance and thus enhance public understanding of and trust in the fair administration of justice. One court employee said in a survey response about the Virtual Townhall:

I feel so proud to be a part of the [San Bernardino] Court and so appreciate you all putting on this townhall, thank you!

The CJA award will be announced in September. The CJA contest, however, has revealed that judicial outreach has thrived in virtual settings during COVID-19. As this article predicts, virtual communication will continue to be a favored forum for judicial outreach even after the pandemic runs its course. n


1. The Lawyers Conference of the ABA’s Judicial Division each year awards the Hod Greeley Award to recognize “extraordinary outreach efforts designed to enhance public awareness of the need for a fair and impartial judiciary.”

2. Teen Court is offered by many trial courts in California and in other states too.

3. Through the Chief Justice’s Power of Democracy Steering Committee. The program concept was borrowed from a similar program that originated in the state of Washington.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

By Judge Richard Fruin

Hon. Richard Fruin is a judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court. He is the author of Judicial Outreach on a Shoestring and many articles about judicial outreach. He is also a former chair of the Judicial Division and a former co-chair of The Judges’ Journal Editorial Board.