Empowering Students' Educational Experience Through Houston Court Watch
By Sheryl E. Taylor
Community collaborations are woven into the fabric of UHD as an anchor institution dedicated to strengthening student success, equity, and educational justice while supporting institutional excellence and infrastructure.
Almost five years ago this June, Harris County commissioned a study to review the city’s criminal justice system. The result was a recommendation that the county support the development of a Court Watch program in conjunction with a nonprofit or a university. UHD was a natural fit as a nonprofit institution dedicated to justice and equity.
The Houston Court Watch program was borne out of meetings held with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office in the spring of 2021 to develop such a program. A year later, a pilot program for Court Watch was created through the College of Public Service’s Houston Laboratory for Crime and Justice (HOLACJ) under the Center for Public Service and Community Research to create Houston Court Watch.
The result? An innovative project that empowers students to uphold democracy by monitoring local criminal courtrooms. According to the HolaCJ website: “The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the public the right to observe our courts as the ultimate safeguard for justice and fairness. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of this constitutional right or have not had an opportunity to exercise it.”
Since the initial rollout of the program in fall 2022, the program hosted two cohorts of proud Houston court watchers. A total of 86 students and community members have received professional training jointly provided by UHD and the Harris County Public Defender’s Office by completing 10 hours of in-person and virtual court watch to earn a certificate of completion from HOLACJ.
According to Dr. Fei Yang, Director of the Houston Laboratory for Crime and Justice, the College of Public Service held its first Houston Court Watch debriefing event in December 2022, where students presented their findings and policy recommendations to their fellow students, faculty members, public defenders from the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, and a Harris County judge.
Most recently in May, the College presented its spring 2023 Houston Court Watch Symposium where students proudly presented posters and answered questions from UHD faculty and community members. “It is a highly rewarding experience to see all the progress and difference students have made through the Houston Court Watch Program,” Yang noted. The College has also provided funding for the Houston Court Watch events in addition to financial support from UHD’s Impact Learning Office and Houston Endowment.
Yang continued, “The Houston Court Watch Program has attracted and engaged UHD undergraduate and graduate students from various academic programs across campus, UHD alumni, students from other universities such as Rice University, and community members in the Greater Houston area. The program is open to the public and welcomes everyone who is interested in learning about the criminal justice system and aspiring to make a difference for the lives of those involved in the system.”
Similar to other Court Watch programs around the country, Houston Court Watch was designed to provide students with civic engagement experience by personally participating in our legal system. By documenting their observations of court proceedings, students (and eventually community members) will help ensure the rights of all defendants are enforced with fairness and equity under existing laws.
Yang credits the visionary leadership of Dr. Jonathan Schwartz, Dean of CPS, behind the Houston Court Watch initiative. “Dr. Schwartz is the driving force behind this initiative and is our biggest supporter,” she emphasized.
“We are proud to host the Court Watch program in the College of Public Service. Court Watch is based on a national model that provides important oversight of the court system, an integral part of the criminal justice system,” said Schwartz. “This program provides important developmental experiences for our students as they learn firsthand about our court system and interactions between the courtroom work group and defendants. Under Dr. Yang’s leadership, students are able to reflect on what they have learned and share it in ways that contribute to a better understanding of what occurs in courtrooms, data gathering, and recommendations for reforms that would improve the system.”