Volunteers sought to keep eye on justice

Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

CourtWatch needs you.

The nonprofit organization that observes and evaluates court proceedings is seeking six to 10 volunteers for the state courts in Kenai.

Implemented in 1988 by Victims for Justice, CourtWatch expanded from its base in Anchorage to Palmer and Kenai in 2000, but right now, has no volunteers in Kenai, according to its director, Kim Carnot.

"We have approximately 50 volunteers on our roster, with about 20 active and some currently in training," Carnot said.

"Right now, though, we have no volunteers in Kenai. The goal for Kenai is to have six active volunteers -- 10 would be fantastic," she said.

"We're gearing up to do training the end of October."

CourtWatch volunteers are unpaid and are asked to commit to serving a minimum of 16 hours per month during regular court days from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Volunteer candidates must not be victims of a crime and may not have been arrested or convicted of crimes. According to the CourtWatch volunteer job description, they also must be able "to handle and process sometimes sensitive or shocking court materials."

CourtWatch is funded in part by grants from the Alaska Bar Foundation and the Alaska Judicial Council.

After an initial observation session in court with a trainer, CourtWatch observers receive 40 hours of training that explain the judicial process from arraignment to sentencing.

The volunteers are instructed to observe and not play any role in the court proceedings and are taught to always remain neutral and objective.

Upon completion of training, the observers receive a small, brass CourtWatch lapel pin referred to as a "CourtWatch badge," which identifies them to court officers.

Observers currently on the CourtWatch roles include elementary, high school and college educators, real estate agents, homemakers, small business owners, state and federal government retirees and college students.

"It's very much geared toward lay people," said Carnot. "We try to provide feedback from people not affiliated with the Alaska court system."

In fact, the stated goals of the watchdog group are to "evaluate Alaska's judicial system from the public's point of view," to provide the justice system with input from the community it serves and to "ensure that all parties are treated fairly: the victim, the witness and the defendant."

Trained observers report to assigned courtrooms and simply observe. Using preprinted forms, they record the specifics about a case, list names of the judge, defendant, victim, defense attorney and prosecutor and describe the type of case they're watching.

The form also includes an evaluation sheet for ranking such characteristics as the participants' preparation, professionalism, communications skills and treatment of all participants.

Most importantly, according to Carnot, observers also are encouraged to provide additional written comments about the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge.

Evaluations submitted by the volunteers are complied into a CourtWatch Report, which is used by the Alaska Judicial Council to help evaluate judicial performance regarding judges up for retention.

Information from the report also is used in the Alaska State Election pamphlet when voters are asked whether to retain Alaska's district and superior court judges.

Carnot said people wishing to volunteer as CourtWatch observers may do so by contacting her in Anchorage at (907) 278-0989, or on the Internet at courtwatch@victimsforjustice.org.

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