A recent survey by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) shows improved marks for the US state court system since the last nationwide survey in April 2012—particularly in the areas of service, stewardship of tax dollars, and integrity. The survey also suggests that the US public wants all three branches to share responsibility for justice reform issues. Yet, perhaps due to traditional adherence to principles of judicial independence and separation of powers, justice institutions throughout the world remain reluctant to bring other branches of government or other sectors to the table, and instead tend to go solo in their justice reform efforts.
But when these institutions demonstrate shared responsibility and accountability for performance outcomes that address injustice on a broad scale—instead of focusing on internal organizational problems using measures of resources, activities, and operations that are often not widely understood—they can help create an open economy for solutions to big, justice-related societal problems. Collaborating with organizations and individuals outside of government makes it possible for justice institutions to tackle entrenched problems of injustice with innovative approaches that would not be available to them if they acted alone. Here are a few examples:
Creating challenges and prizes. Competitions that are open to everyone—not just credentialed, pedigreed experts—are one area that illustrates how justice reform has entered the solution economy. Organizers announce a challenge and offer a prize, and then stand back as smart and ambitious individuals and groups come up with solutions.
One example is the 2013 Innovating Justice Awards, a collaborative effort of four nongovernmental organizations working in the justice arena. Participants are not typically government employees; instead, they are people like Frank Richardson, the founder of UK-based firm called OpenTrial, which aims to promote “legal system transparency that engenders improved accountability, civic engagement, and reform.” A self-described “natural entrepreneur,” Richardson submitted an idea for a Fair Trials App that allows courtroom observers to check court proceedings against fair trial criteria and make the results available for public scrutiny online. While he clearly sees profit potential in his work, Richardson’s goal is “strengthening justice and the rule of law.”
Driving citizen engagement. Then there are people like Al Varney, a community leader in Monrovia, Liberia. With his recently started court monitoring system, the Open Justice Initiative, Varney is working to build creative tools for social accountability, supported by training, design support, mentorship, and seed funding from Accountability Lab, an independent nonprofit organization.
Varney, dubbed an “accountapreneur” (someone with an entrepreneurial approach to accountability) by Accountability Lab, hopes this court monitoring system will help rebuild Liberia and make for a more responsive justice system that allows ready access to justice in his community.
Twice a week, volunteers monitors from the Open Justice Initiative observe four magisterial courts in Monrovia and generate a justice “scorecard” that includes measures relating to the number of cases the court processes, whether the judge arrives on time, whether the court returns bond fees to defendants, and whether the court makes a bulletin of cases public. Local newspapers will soon publish the first comprehensive scorecard to generate debate, and the organization will use it in discussions with Ministry of Justice officials. While the Open Justice Initiative is still in its infancy, its courtroom monitors have stated that their presence alone has significantly reduced late arrival of judges, curbed open illegal transactions in court (such as bribery), and increased attendance among public prosecutors.
Trading in performance outcome measures instead of dollars. Justice institutions and systems that answer the question “How are we doing?” on a regular and continuous basis—sharing their performance data and embracing citizen feedback mechanisms—proclaim their shared responsibility and publicly hold themselves accountable for performance outcomes that matter to ordinary citizens. Trading in the nontraditional currency of performance data and clear and actionable societal outcome measures for specific solutions, they effectively move the important work they do beyond their own four walls and, in effect, become part of a solution economy.
One justice performance measure that serves as a nontraditional currency is the duration of pretrial custody, an easily understood and relatively simple measure that matters to ordinary citizens and policy reformers who worry about the injustice—and the attendant financial burdens and societal costs—of prolonged and unjust pretrial detention. Duration of pretrial custody has drawn the attention of not only justice system insiders (judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, as well as law enforcement and corrections officials), but also groups and individuals outside the formal justice systems who care about reducing crime, ensuring public safety, fighting poverty, reducing costs of corrections and law enforcement, making wise use of public resources, combating disease, promoting human rights, and making legal systems more just.
Because duration of pretrial custody is clear, focused, and actionable, and because it is an easily understood indicator of an entrenched social problem, it is a potential rallying point for reform and improvement efforts that can bring government, citizens, groups, and organizations together in a solution economy. Justice institutions, social enterprises, and businesses can collaborate to reduce the average duration of pretrial custody, thereby creating efficiencies in court case processing that reduce the prison population and addressing a host of social problems.