Group makes statewide push for more transparency into Maryland courtrooms

The group Courtwatch PG was founded with the aim of providing more transparency to the one step of the criminal justice system that’s public in name, but less public in practice.

For the most part, judicial proceedings are open to the public, but you have to be willing and available to travel to courthouses to see what happens.

The pandemic changed that, with virtual hearings that let anyone with a Zoom or Webex account see what was going on. With the evolution of the pandemic, accessibility is changing again. For the second year in a row, Courtwatch PG is helping to lead a state effort to open it up again.

“The community needs to be a part of what’s happening in courtrooms,” said Carmen Johnson, one of the founders of the Courtwatch PG group. “They need to be able to make sure that their loved ones are being treated properly.”

In recent years, Courtwatch PG has trained hundreds of volunteers to sit in courtrooms and monitor what’s happening. For Johnson, some of the most important hearings are the bond hearings held after someone is arrested.

“We need to see who is being held without bond or being held without release and why — and we need to keep track of that,” said Johnson. She said it’s typically people of color who get less favorable treatment in those hearings, and while judges always explain their decision, she said those explanations don’t always add up.

The law says “everyone should be considered for a reasonable bond that they can afford,” said Johnson. “Some people are given a bond and they can’t afford it.”

When they believe something unfair has transpired, letters are written to judicial leaders around the state, as well as elected leaders letting them know their concerns about what happened.

That includes state lawmakers who are part of their body’s judicial committees, said Johnson. “And we also send praise letters about the judges when they do amazing things. We also send praise letters for the assistant state’s attorneys” when the group feels it’s warranted.

A big deal was made last year about her group’s push to make court proceedings accessible to online viewing, but in the end it didn’t make it into law. This year, the bill she’s helping to lobby for has been tweaked a bit, with more exceptions that would shield proceedings that might involve domestic violence cases, divorce cases or bankruptcy, for example.

“We didn’t think that far ahead last year,” she acknowledged, “whereas this time around we are very concerned about victims, we are very concerned about our youth, we are very concerned about people in their financial situations and divorce. That’s nobody’s business.”

Other, similar court-watching groups already exist around the country, and in recent years, Johnson and leaders from those groups have started coalescing around a larger umbrella, meeting every month to talk about the hurdles they run into, and offer advice when they have any.

“We understand what they are going through, they understand what we’re going through,” said Johnson, about the support system they provide each other. “We do understand that there are different statutes or codes, or they mean different things in different states, we understand that. And that’s another reason we meet once a month. To talk about all of these things.”

Johnson’s interest in court watching stems from her own experiences through the criminal justice system — including three years in a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia — and her determination to make sure other people are treated fairly; she believes she wasn’t.

But she said she also now works with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland and its support program for citizens who are exiting the criminal justice system. She said that’s evidence that should refute the idea that Courtwatch is just a group that bashes judges and prosecutors.

“What we want, and who we are, we just want justice,” said Johnson.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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