Theory & Practice
... min read

Chaplain in the Courtroom: A Minnesota Experiment

Written by
Uriah Williams
Published on
June 12, 2024

Fatherhood and Familiarity

Earlier this year, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. It has been an amazing experience full of new challenges and hard work, seasoned with laughter and memories that will last a lifetime. One of the most amazing aspects of fatherhood to me is watching how my daughter interacts with the world around her as she figures out what it means to be human. She laughs and smiles now, and her eyes are developed enough to see at least a few feet in front of her. Her own body is still so strange to her as she learns how to use her hands and feet.

One of the most interesting times to me, however, is when she is put in an unfamiliar situation that is a bit scary for her. Usually loud noises or something internal that she can’t quite fix by herself, her immediate reaction is to look around for me or her mom. In times of distress, our daughter looks for someone she knows is there to care for her and has been a place of support in times past, not necessarily to fix the situation for her, but just so she knows she is not alone.

Clinical Pastoral Education Experience

This experience of fatherhood is not unlike an experience I had during my Clinical Pastoral Education. It was an experience that I strongly believe we should consider implementing as policy on the federal level and lower of our government. I had the honor of being a court chaplain for a Veterans Court in Minnesota as part of my introduction to pastoral care education. During that time, I got to interact with veterans who were in an unfamiliar surrounding (court, specifically online court through Zoom), with unfamiliar people (lawyers, other veterans, a judge, me), and in what was an unfamiliar situation for at least some of them.

Veterans Court: A Problem-Solving Approach

Veterans Court is different from the typical courtroom. It is a “problem-solving court designed for U.S. military veterans charged with misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony offenses and struggling with addiction, serious mental illness, and/or co-occurring disorders." It is a voluntary program that lasts roughly 12 to 18 months that upon completion participants receive a graduation certificate and some cases may be dismissed or reduced. From what I gathered from my time with the court and in my research since, it is a program aiming to take some load off of the prison system and to provide meaningful help for individuals who would not otherwise receive it.

My Role as an Online Court Chaplain

I found myself participating in an experiment to be an online chaplain for one of these vets courts. I would arrive at the start of the court time and the moderator of the Zoom session would ask in the chat section if anyone was interested in speaking with a chaplain. If they were, I would be moved to a separate breakout room with them where we could discuss what was on their heart and in their soul prior to their time with the judge. Though I’m not sure how effective I was at calming any of them, I had the unique position that I myself am a US Army veteran and that what was shared with me could be shared in confidence. This opened doors for me that their attorneys and judge might have needed to pry on because we started off with a sense of trust from shared service, similar to my experience now with my daughter.

Creating a Safe Space for Veterans

Many of the attendees of the court were scared. Like my daughter, they were in unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people. I found there was a sense of integrity among those I talked to who already knew why they were there and felt guilty about their actions but needed serious help to break the cycle of repeating. One individual I worked with thought for sure he was going to be served a warrant to go to jail when his time with the judge came. He had missed his probation time, again, and had resolved in his mind that he was no longer worthy of another chance. He was scared.

A Glimmer of Hope

Yet he was also hopeful. He had talked with one of his children for the first time in years recently. He had been attending AA meetings regularly, despite his repeated falling back to alcohol. He had held a job for a longer period of time than he had been previously able to. And he was scared he had thrown all that progress away because of failing to meet the probationary criteria. Our talk, I could tell, was deep and difficult for him but because we shared a bond from our military service, he was willing to open up. Like how I am familiar to my daughter, I believe he felt familiar with me. And when his time with the judge came, what did he find? Was he served a warrant and told to surrender to the nearest precinct? Did he lose all that progress? No, he was met with a judge who cared and could see that progress too. A judge showed him grace and offered him another chance to continue the program. The relief on his face was immediate.

The Potential for Chaplains in Courtrooms

What if not just our special courts, but all of our courtrooms had the option for attendees to speak with a chaplain during their time with the justice system? Defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, jury members, judges, and lawyers alike. What if we all found a face that was familiar to us and willing to sit by our side in these unfamiliar moments of our lives just to let us know we aren’t alone in what we’re going through? Would reoffending rates fall? Would the system become more efficient and more gracious? Would hearts and minds be changed through care rather than harsh punishment? I don’t have the answers or data to back any of that up, but I do know through my own experience that the presence I was able to provide to those handful of people I served was one that they appreciated. It was one that they could trust and one that they needed before going into some of the most nerve-wracking conversations of their lives.

Looking Ahead with Hope

As my daughter continues to grow and learn, I hope that she will always find someone to be with her in the moments that make her scared. It is my hope as well that a space can emerge for chaplains in the courtroom that will remind everyone involved with the justice system of their own humanity and the humanity that is around them. As the engineer motto in the Army goes, “Essayons,” or “Let us try.”

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