Courtwatching in the time of Coronavirus

Posted by Nikki Grant, Courtwatch Organizer.

On February 26, 2020, the Judge Accountability Table held its first Courtwatch Volunteer Training. Volunteers received a primer on how Philadelphia and Pennsylvania courts work and then were trained on how to observe judges. The Courtwatch Program was set for its initial run on March 16th.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

The groups that make up the Judge Accountability Table were suddenly forced to respond to the global pandemic’s impact on the communities they serve, which are largely incarcerated folks and their families, immigrant communities, youth, and working class and other marginalized individuals. With courts closed, courtwatching was temporarily put on the back-burner.

Until the actions–or rather, inaction–of the First Judicial District put it very much to the front.

As the number of positive cases mounted in the Philly jails, the Philadelphia Public Defender and the District Attorney’s Office worked together to respond to public demands for public health decarceration.

The courts did not appear to be on board. Weeks after coronavirus hit the jails, claiming the life of 48 year old Yvonne Harris, the First Judicial District started allowing for the release of individuals at a snail’s pace. One judge made the news for not only denying all releases, but making it harder for people to get out of jail by increasing bail. This judge also refused to have the press listen in on hearings.

Now, more than ever, it is critical that Philadelphians know what is happening in courts. It is a literal matter of life and death. The Judge Accountability Table is stepping up to bear witness to what judges are doing in the time of coronavirus.

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