COVID-19 crisis an opportunity to fix old flaws
"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
"Anthem" by Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen's lyrics are timeless and grounding — speaking truth to this challenging time for our community. COVID-19 has exposed a crack in the way we work, live and connect. The timeless nature of Cohen's sentiment is also a calling, reminding us of "the imperfection of the human condition," to continue to ring the bells of change.
One of the system cracks magnified by COVID-19 is the accessibility of our local court system. Whether it's the lack of technology to hold hearings remotely — while still providing public access — or safely summoning jurors for trials, the judiciary must now work to deliver solutions that meet the needs of both attorneys and the public at large for a more accessible court system. For the last 10 years, I have worked on system cracks at the forefront of our local courts — including gaps in community mental health services, and policing practices of officers who are far too often the first responders to persons in mental health crisis. From my view, the accessibility limits of our court system community-wide is grave and in need of reform.
My work has involved a decade of engagement with a wide range of stakeholders — state and local agencies, elected officials, law enforcement, advocates, providers, faith leaders and community members. In the midst of crisis and frustration, there is an opportunity to embrace systemic reform, through extensive gap analysis and broad stakeholder engagement — and it must be championed by accountable leaders.
The focus here is not what judicial leadership could or should have done in response to the crisis — instead, we must redouble our efforts to move the court's work and our community forward. Indeed, our judicial leaders had to respond extremely quickly to an unprecedented health crisis, and with very limited resources. In order to protect the public from harm, our judicial leaders had to forget their "perfect offering" and work quickly in the interest of public safety, especially in the wake of a failure at the national level to mitigate or inform the impact of the impending pandemic. With COVID-19 magnifying cracks in our system, judges, as elected leaders, have an opportunity to exhibit courage and compassion to make real system change so that court access is improved for all.
Leaders must not assume to know what is cracked and broken. The lens from which leaders see gaps is likely very different from the lenses through which community members, community advocates, the press and lawyers look through. For example, in my work on assessing gaps in our community mental health system, while leaders around the state provided helpful input, it was only through engagement with advocates, doctors and nurses that we learned about the boarding of psychiatric patients in emergency departments. Just as critical, is not stopping with answers just from leaders, but also pursuing input from a range of stakeholders — self-represented individuals, non-profit advocacy organizations, law enforcement, trial lawyers and the press. A successful gap analysis will take time, resources and accountability — and engagement must occur across the community.
The work of gathering input — and thereby gaining trust — from stakeholders, requires leaders to keep coming back. This is not an easy task, and it takes courage — the input is not likely to be complimentary. Gathering genuine input requires trust — from each stakeholder. This work will be harder than ever with social distancing limits. Building trust takes time — any trusted relationships built prior to COVID-19 are priceless. It has taken me the better part of the decade to earn trust across the community — with individual advocates, elected officials, religious leaders and members of law enforcement — time well beyond duty hours, and often outside of one's comfort zone. These are honored relationships, yet even the most supportive stakeholders must be sought after for input — people know what's wrong, but they likely don't have time to tell you, unless you make the time to ask. While it is an impossible task to implement every suggestion and address every concern, leaders can demonstrate compassion and courage when addressing unmet expectations.
As a judicial candidate on the May ballot, I look forward to the opportunity to bring my experience to bear and move the work of the court forward.
Adrian L. Brown is a candidate for Multnomah County Circuit Court, 4th District, Position 12.
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