Inside Prince George's County Bond Hearings: Analysis, Findings, and Recommendations
In-person court observation has long been established as the sole method of access to public trials, supported by the First Amendment. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made court proceedings much more accessible because of the implementation of virtual court access. During the 2020 quarantine, court observation gained popularity when Grammy Award-winning singer, Fiona Apple, served as a volunteer virtual court watcher and shared her observations of Prince George’s County – further emphasizing the importance of holding the judges, prosecutors, and commissioners accountable through virtual court observation.
Unfortunately, courts are moving away from virtual access as the rest of the world has begun to shift back to functioning in person. In order to ensure that virtual access to court proceedings remains in Prince George’s County, the Movement Lawyering Clinic at Howard University School of Law has partnered with Courtwatch PG, a community of local volunteers who observe bail hearings in the Prince George’s County District Court to document its policies in action and to hold judicial actors accountable for injustice in the court system. Together, both groups are pushing for legislation that would require courts to continue to make their proceedings virtually accessible.
In the fall of 2020, student attorneys in the Movement Lawyering Clinic began collaborating with client Zealous and Courtwatch PG to document wrongdoing in the Prince George’s County court system. Since then, students have witnessed assistant state attorneys advocate for and judges set unaffordable bonds to effectively detain defendants in violation of Maryland Rule 4-216.1. Also, students have witnessed community members being denied a proper hearing and effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, due to loss of sound connection and the refusal of the judge to restate the missed information. Additionally, students have witnessed judges ignore the medical needs of community members, implicating the Eighth Amendment protection against deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. Lastly, students witnessed juveniles with no prior record being treated abhorrently as they were held for long, potentially prejudicial periods of time while awaiting trial, implicating juveniles’ Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.
“The proceedings in Prince George’s County demonstrated a lack of compassion and transparency and continuous violation of Constitutional rights towards the most vulnerable community members,” said Ayanna Watkins, 2L student.
Caelah Chavis, 3L student, added to Watkins’ sentiments.
“The proceedings showed me that mistreatment of community members has been normalized. I can only imagine what happens when the courtrooms are empty.”
Student observations have culminated in the 2023 Courtwatch Report. They assert that the abuses the clinic and Courtwatch PG documented show that the “basic fairness” of the criminal trial, emphasized as an essential facet of the criminal justice system by the Supreme Court, is not currently being fulfilled nor properly monitored by non-remote public access. Thus, even though the right to public criminal trials has never previously included virtual access, in order to achieve the purpose of public access to criminal courts, the judiciary must make proper adjustments to reinvigorate public confidence and ensure fairness in the criminal justice system.
The report urges the Maryland State Legislature to pass HB 133, and SB 0043, which would require state courts to provide audio-visual access to court proceedings, barring circumstances where a witness, party, or counsel requests privacy or where publicizing the proceeding would cause prejudice. The legislation, therefore, protects both vulnerable witnesses and community members who have a Constitutional right to a public criminal trial. This bill passage would set a standard for transparency and accountability in courts that has long been missing.
“It is easy to get stuck in tradition,” said Layton Rodwell, 2L student. “It is easy to engage in the same practices that have gone on for decades and ignore fundamental issues, so long as no one pushes back. That is how systematic disenfranchisement is perpetuated. The purpose of our report is to bring attention to the fact that the way the Prince George’s County Court system is functioning now does not align with criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights or the public’s First Amendment rights and allow Prince George’s County to address these fundamental issues in turn attenuating disenfranchisement."