Courts in rural jurisdictions experience many of the same challenges of courts in larger more urban areas; however, the magnitude of these challenges can be quite different because of critical contextual factors. Jurisdiction over expansive geographic distances and sparse populations in or near local communities make the day-to-work of holding court difficult as do a limited number of attorneys and small populations from which to select jurors for trials. Professional isolation of judges and staff, lack of accessible programs and services for victims and offenders, and outmoded court facilities often constructed in a much earlier area further impact the administration of justice in rural communities. The Rural Court Improvement Network (RCIN) was created by JMI to help rural court leaders, as well as state court administrators, develop new and innovative approaches to overcoming the challenges they face.
In 2008, JMI, with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, implemented the Rural Court Improvement Network to strengthen the ability of state court systems and rural court leaders to improve court operations in rural areas by emphasizing the sharing of information and ideas about promising approaches and practices, and fostering peer-to-peer learning among court system leaders at the state and local levels.
Innovation that is common in larger urban courts is not easily transferable to rural courts for a variety of reasons. Rural judges and court staff are, by necessity, generalists, who are required to handle all of the procedures in all case types with the same skills that a staff of 50 or 150 might handle in a larger court. Access to expertise and services necessary for resolving cases, including specialized staff and docketing practices, are generally not available options in rural courts. Certain specialized services—e.g., substance abuse and mental health treatment services; domestic violence prevention programs—are often non-existent or extremely difficult to access in rural counties. In some rural areas there are significant immigrant populations, and language barriers often create a need for qualified interpreters that cannot easily be met. It is common for rural counties to have part-time judges and (in limited jurisdiction courts) to have non-attorney judges, part-time prosecutors, and very limited law enforcement presence. The RCIN was designed to help rural court leaders understand their unique needs and constraints, identify potential solutions to their common problems, and explore new approaches.
Although it is clear that the challenges facing rural courts are different than in urban courts, there is a tremendous amount of innovation that occurs. In fact, rural courts often have a significant advantage over larger courts for experimenting with new strategies because of their smaller size—collaboration is often easier because key decision makers know and trust each other and challenges impact everyone in the system making it easier to work together to find strategies that are beneficial to all. Over the years, the RCIN has highlighted several of these innovations.
Click on the links below to read more about innovations in each area.
To join the Rural Court Information Network list serve, complete the form below and click the sign up button.
For more information about the Rural Court Information Network, please contact JMI at (703) 414-5477 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nugent-Borakove, E., Mahoney, B., & Whitcomb, D. (2011). Strengthening Rural Courts: Challenges and Progress. Future Trends in State Courts.
Nugent-Borakove, E., Mahoney, B. (Summer 2011) The Context of Rural Justice: Rural Court Networks. Court Manager 26(2), 26-30.