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Court Watch volunteers monitor crime


Brenda Carmen
Call them home-grown crime fighters.

Nearly every day, these volunteers face a sometimes confusing legal system to track what happens to people arrested in Rock Island County on drugs, weapons and gang-related charges.

Along the way, the mostly senior-citizen crew has attracted interest from groups as far away as Florida and captured a 1994 Governor's Hometown Pride Award.

Members of the Court Watch program say their goal is simple -- reducing crime by getting more people educated about and involved in the legal system.

Court Watch was formed in 1993 by volunteers working with townships, police and prosecutors, organizer Brenda Carmen said.

``We didn't know where we were going,'' Mrs. Carmen said. ``We decided that monitoring these cases in court was the only thing no one was already doing.''

The program is modeled, in part, after a court-watching system used in Waterloo, Iowa, she said. That system, though, ranked prosecutors and judges according to the penalties handed down to criminals, which is something the Rock Island program does not do.

Local volunteers instead focus on ways of educating people about the judicial system, from preparing reports on crime in neighborhoods to sponsoring forums for judicial candidates, Mrs. Carmen said.

``Most people don't know anything about who they're voting for when they vote for judicial candidates,'' she said.

While it is non-political, Court Watch has lobbied for truth-in-sentencing laws and other changes that ``empower seniors,'' Mrs. Carmen said.

Armed with logs to record crimes and sentences and bright yellow buttons identifying their status as monitors, Court Watch volunteers spend several hours weekly in Rock Island County's criminal courts.

They focus mostly on criminal cases involving gangs, drugs, weapons or attacks against police officers. ``We've found that usually, they're all connected at some level,'' Mrs. Carmen said. ``That was what we were seeing -- and what they neighborhoods were telling us -- as problems.''

The volunteers are recruited through township newsletters, speaking engagements and church bulletins, Mrs. Carmen said.

Court Watch tries to brief volunteers and provides informational packets before their first hearings since ``most of these people have never been in the courthouse before,'' Mrs. Carmen said.

``We discovered retired people were some of our best volunteers, because they have the time to go to court,'' she said.

Adeline Coppens has observed cases for Court Watch almost since its inception.

``I've been interested in having a court watch program ever since Ralph Nader had his congressional watch,'' she said. ``I'm looking for justice, and I think its pretty well taken care of down there. Just our presence in the courtroom keeps the judges and attorneys on their toes.''

Often, Court Watch volunteers serve as a type of support system for prosecuting attorneys, Mrs. Coppens said. ``A lot of times when you go in there for a drug case, the defendant will have family and friends there, but there's no one there on the side of the state.''

The senior citizen said she is usually not bothered by the sometimes graphic accounts she hears in courtrooms. ``Sometimes I bring friends along to watch, but they're pretty persnickety about what they see,'' she said, laughing.

Court Watch has grown from about 15 people to more than 100 notified of monthly meetings, Mrs. Carmen said. About 30 volunteers regularly attend court hearings.

The program ``helps their understanding of the legal system,'' she said. ``Now they understand why, when they call the police about the drug dealer on their corner, that person is back again in three months.''

-- By Rebecca Morris (February 9, 1998)

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