Vulnerable communities are often impacted negatively by the very justice system that is supposed to ensure fair, equal application of the law to all people. Systemic poverty in minority communities means many already-vulnerable people rely on public defenders, who are often overworked. For youth experiencing homelessness—a sadly prevalent phenomenon in Ohio—the justice system tends to inflict penalties for being unsheltered. Fines and jail stays make long-term incarceration more likely, making it even more difficult for these young people to get on their feet.
Changing these systems must start with listening to the people who are impacted by them. Knowing this, our clients partnered with us to organize focus groups with youth who have experienced homelessness and people who have used public defenders in order to hear their perspectives on what can help to limit and improve their interactions with the justice system.
It is no secret that justice-involved populations can be extremely difficult to organize, often due to understandable fear and skepticism when it comes to the systems that have impacted them. However, Cohear’s unique Bridgebuilder model, which relies on existing relationships of trust, made it possible for us to recruit members of this group to productive, idea-driven conversations with justice system leadership.
4 Focus Groups and 5 qualitative interviews with youth who have experienced homelessness, people who have had a public defender, and community leaders who regularly work with populations that utilize public defenders
“Going into this as someone getting in trouble for the first time in their entire life is very overwhelming and stressful, because you don’t know the system. ...Having that public defender help educate you on the system and the process, and what to expect [would be helpful].”
“I think that the most important thing that kids need is support. I feel like a lot of reasons why crime happens are because of poverty and abuse, or stress. If kids have a team of support or someone to be there for them, that would help.”
–Teen experiencing homelessness
During these conversations, participants brainstormed strategies that would make them feel more supported and safe when navigating the justice system. Their ideas varied in scope from major structural changes to small tweaks in how courtrooms begin their proceedings.
Equipping law enforcement to refer youth experiencing homelessness to supportive services
Involving non-law enforcement personnel in crisis situations instead of police
Cultivating empathy and cultural understanding among juvenile judges
Providing an all-in-one resource navigation portal for those who have never engaged with the legal system before
Building capacity into public defenders’ schedules to meet with their clients in advance of the first court date
Integrating cultural competence and empathy training within all justice system staff orientation protocols
Cohear turned these insights into actionable strategy reports for the Hamilton County Office of the Public Defender and the Collaborative for Change, who have responded by making tangible changes, including:
New policies and procedures for training public defenders based on everyday expert feedback around empathy, cultural competence, and active listening
A community advisory board at the Hamilton County Office of the Public Defender for ongoing feedback and engagement
Implementation of icebreakers and active listening techniques in courtroom of Cincinnati-area juvenile judges