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Why doesn’t every new justice reform policy come with a community navigator program?

Margaret Hagan, Dec 1, 2022

Reflecting back on all of our legal design work over the past 10 years, I’ve spotted a common pattern happening:

  1. Momentum builds around a justice reform policy that intends to address a fundamental problem in people’s ability to access the justice system. This could be around giving people facing traffic tickets the ability to apply for a financial waiver, so it doesn’t set off a financial crisis for them. Or it could be a new program to get tenants & landlords emergency rental assistance, to stop an eviction. Or it could be a policy to allow for people to expunge criminal records for marijuana-related offenses.
  2. Hard, detailed legal work goes into creating & passing this new policy. State, local, or federal bodies make this proposal into an official ‘thing’. The policy is announced! Change is happening! There are press releases, announcements, and maybe a website to tell the public about this new policy that should help them.
  3. Groups are put in charge of making this policy into programs, that the public can find and use. This is usually where our Legal Design Lab has been invited in to help. How do we make the public aware that this policy exists and can help them? How do we translate the policy from a legal text into real-life programs, processes, and impact?
  4. Programs struggle to get effective public outreach, uptake & usage. It turns out to be quite hard to reach people who might benefit from a new traffic ticket, eviction, or expungement policy. It’s also hard to design a new process that’s user-friendly, low-burden, and engaging enough for a person to stick with it until the end. In some cases, programs also need to adjust when there’s fraud activity, too. We often work with these nascent, struggling programs to redesign how they’re doing outreach, services, and evaluations.

Having observed many of these policy → program journeys — and how hard it is to get public awareness, uptake, and engagement with new policies — there is one solution that should be baked into the earlier phases, as groups are proposing policies:

Community Justice Navigators are an essential part to making justice reforms impactful.

If every new ‘justice reform’ policy came with a mandate & funding for community justice navigators, this could be a big step towards making the policy have the impact it is intended to.

Community justice navigators can be in the neighborhoods and community groups, to alert the public about this new policy & programming. They can help people understand what the opportunity is, and why it’s trustworthy and valuable. Navigators can:

  • Awareness: Get more people to know about the policy & programs: They can hold ‘official’ public outreach events, and also do informal, peer-to-peer outreach. Ideally, community justice navigators will have ties to local groups, and can have a much stronger reach to build awareness.
  • Spot-and-Refer: Help people know what’s available to them. Navigators can talk to people who are trying to figure out what their life problem is in legal terms — and what services might help them. They can help legal (or financial, or social) issue-spot, and refer people to expert groups or programs that can help them.
  • Procedural Coach: Be there with a person throughout their justice journey. Navigators can play a companion role, helping a person stay engaged, attending hearings, dealing with legal notices, addressing hiccups, and keeping a person motivated and supported. A justice journey can be draining and intimidating — and a navigator can play a support role that lawyers and others often can’t.
  • Task Assistance: Help the person get their forms and papers right. People often struggle with filling in forms, gathering evidence, or prepping for their day in court. A navigator can help them do these tasks, to know what’s expected & how to get it done.
  • In-Court Navigation: Guide the person at hearings, meetings, and trials. When a person comes to a court or government agency on their own, they may not know how to behave, what to say, how to get their story across, or how to interact with officials. A navigator can help a person know what to do & support them through the stress of a court day.

A Community Justice Navigator doesn’t have to play all of these roles — but even playing a few of them can help increase access to justice. A navigator can increase a person’s legal capability — improving their knowledge, strategy, and confidence.

A Navigator can also help policy-makers and service providers, by getting their new rules and programs crucial public exposure, doing the ‘customer service’ work of helping people navigate this new system, and encouraging the person to participate in a timely, well-prepared way.

Any new justice reform policy or program is likely going to struggle with public awareness, uptake, and navigation. So why doesn’t every new policy effort come baked in with a Community Justice Navigator program?

For all the effort that goes into getting new legislation or programs launched, the real goal is to impact people’s lives for the better. We want people to know about this new policy, be able to use it, and have improved life outcomes because of it. To make an impact, we need to invest in & train more Community Justice Navigators, to reach the public & help them use new programs that are meant to help them.

Read more about Justice Navigator programs for examples:

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