Stuck in a loop
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have found myself in the same mental loop over and over again. The exercise in setting our thesis goals along various continua brought this loop to the surface. When it comes to the focus of my thesis, I feel torn in two directions and I keep trying to reconcile them. Part of this comes from my unwillingness (which I will have to get over) to let go of any ideas; the other part may have to do with reframing, so here it is:
Which side of jury duty should I approach? Do I approach juries as one of the sanctioned forms of civilian interaction with the justice system and expand my thinking to include other user groups that show up at courthouses? Or do I think about jury duty as the one lasting example of democracy in the system, and focus on expanding the opportunities for involvement or thinking about impact that works indirectly? I'll unpack the way I'm thinking about both these directions below.
One reason I'm so fascinated by juries is that they bridge the space between the general population and the justice system. The system is built around the idea of lawyers needing to inform and persuade laymen of their case in order for a verdict to be rendered. The fact that juries exist speaks to a desire to protect the justice system from complete professionalization, to keep verdicts independent from professional incentives. While beautiful in theory, the reality of jury duty can be inefficient, feel like a waste of time, and force people to have to miss work, rearrange their schedules, find childcare, etc. Being called for jury duty hardly feels like an honor.
The roles in a courthouse are very specific. There aren't any floaters—everyone has a clear job to do. When it comes to the roles of civilians, there are very few that apply: If you are in a criminal courtroom you have either been accused of a crime, been the victim of a crime, be accompanying family, testifying as a witness, or serving as a juror. Using design to improve experience in any of these situations seems to me to serve a goal of implementing procedural justice. How could I take each of these experiences and increase people's sense of voice, respect, understanding, and impartiality? Could those interventions actually transform the system, or would it merely smooth out some wrinkles in a dirty bedspread?
The other option I see is to build new roles for civilians to take on in the criminal justice system. All the roles I mentioned above have relatively negative implications. If you're not on trial, you've been violated. You are at the mercy of the court's timetable. Could we create opportunities for positive engagement with the system? Perhaps there could be a courthouse volunteer program for college students interested in criminal justice, which would have them assist court users. Or could we design ways for people interested in criminal justice reform to be involved outside of courtrooms? Perhaps the focus needs to be about capitalizing on the newly engaged progressive set, who could work to remediate some of the things in the world that lead to problems in the system—lack of resources in communities, disparities between law and public opinion, state level legislation on mandatory minimums, etc.
All of this begs the question: What am I trying to get out of this? It could be a project around civic engagement that would apply beyond the criminal justice system. It could be about having the greatest possible impact on parts of the court system that perpetuate or facilitate injustice.
I have two fears in answering the question. One is that I am familiar with very few perspectives interacting with the system. I have not talked to defendants, people at arraignments, DAs, court officers, family members, etc. Even among juries, my interviewees have represented a very specific class that is bothered, but not really burdened by jury duty. How can I design for these other interactions with the court system without knowing more?
My second fear is that my work is targeting the wrong piece of the puzzle. The problems in the criminal justice system are vast. And while many people who are accused of crimes have indeed broken the law in some way, we need to look at police reform to address the way that people of color are disproportionately targeted for these arrests. On the other end of the process, we need to examine conditions in prisons, processes for parole, and services to support reentry. Jury trials happen for less than 5% of all criminal cases. Should I really focus on that? Does that mean I can't try to address the disproportionate use of plea bargains?
I'm not going to resolve these questions here. But suffice it to say there are many, and as soon as I get excited about one direction, I either recognize my limitations and get scared, or remember one of the ideas I have that applies to the other direction. I'm torn back and forth. Ultimately, I have to take a stance, be clear about what I care about, whom I want to serve, and what I want to make. Stay tuned.