What Justice Needs Now

May 15, 2022   •   By Laurie L. Levenson

The Power of Dignity: How Transforming Justice Can Heal Our Communities

Victoria Pratt

THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM is broken. Everyone knows that. But not everyone has a solution. That is why Judge Victoria Pratt’s new book, The Power of Dignity, should be mandatory reading for all judges in America.

The thousands of books on law and procedure published every year are unlikely to have anywhere near the impact on the justice system as this book written by a judge in the trenches. Pratt has the secret sauce for improving our courts and their impact: rather than be the pipeline to a life in custody, courts should be portals to real transformation.

First and foremost, Pratt’s goal is not to punish as many defendants as possible. It is to transform communities by healing the underlying ills that lead to criminal behavior. And to do that, Pratt keeps her courtroom “real.” As damaged people pass through her municipal court in Newark, New Jersey, Pratt models for them what procedural justice is: an opportunity to be heard and seen, and to have someone believe that you can actually turn your life around. Not an easy task. People (mostly people of color) are brought into the system as losers. The optics often say it all. The judge wears a big, black robe. The defendants, reminiscent of the captive slaves being ripped from humanity, are lined up and charged. They are often dirty, confused, and victims of their own disorders and derailed lives. And they have arrived at the end of the line. Courts have focused so long on efficiency that they have lost their humanity.

For Pratt, the goal is not to continue the “cookie-cutter approach to justice” that has proven so ineffective and inhumane; rather, in her words, it is “the use of procedural justice” to transform “our court system using the power of dignity and respect.” She and politicians like Senator Cory Booker have taken risks and devoted significant energy to change “The Green Monster” (the moniker applied to the Newark Municipal Courthouse) into a home of opportunity.

Before detailing how Pratt transformed a bureaucratic maze into a place of justice, she reveals her motivations. As the daughter of an African American sanitation worker father who experienced Jim Crow laws and witnessed the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, and of a Dominican beautician mother who engaged, fed, befriended, and counseled the homeless, drug addicted, and despondent, Pratt knew what her mission would be. It was to treat people — even those who have done something terribly wrong — with respect. And to demand that they too account for their own behavior. Just like people had to apologize to her mama, defendants had to own their shortcomings and work, with the help of others, to overcome them.

Reading Pratt’s book, I caught myself saying, “Thank you.” Thank you to someone with her credibility and experience for writing something that every judge should read. Thank you for writing about humanity and how our justice system must shift from destroying what is left of a person’s humanity to cultivating it.

I also confess that Pratt’s story made me think of my own mom. At the time, I couldn’t figure out whether she was crazy or a saint. But my mother would befriend those others called “shopping cart (unhoused) ladies” on the street and bring them back to our home for a meal, new clothes, to talk about how to find a job or go back to school, or just a chance to speak with someone who wasn’t trying to lock them up. Whether it be a courtroom or a living room, carving out places in our lives and criminal justice system for compassion is essential if we are really going to get off the carceral bandwagon.

But back to Pratt. If you are thinking, “Oh, she is one of those bleeding hearts or pushovers,” you are wrong. Her courtroom has rules; she gives the orders. However, her process is not to see how many bodies she can speed through the system; she offers “a better approach.”

For that better approach, the judge must take an interest in what brings the defendant to the criminal justice system in the first place. Most are poor, many are marginalized, an overwhelming number are severely mentally ill. Sitting in a jail cell does not cure those ills. They often stay trapped in their own minds hearing voices that confuse them and lead them astray. Pratt tries to be the voice they listen to instead. When defendants appear, she will say, “Please, listen to my voice.” And she listens to them. The goal is to build trust. Using kindness and compassion is a helpful tool, not a weakness, when doing so. It is a matter of what she calls “procedural justice.” The principles of procedural justice are simple: if you treat people with dignity and respect, they are more willing to accept the judicial rulings, even when the judge rules against them. If being a judge “is like having a reserved seat to a tragic reality show,” then give people an opportunity to tell their stories. Give them a voice.

Pratt has a unique way of making sure people both think about and tell their stories. It is never easy for anyone to reflect on their lives, especially the parts that went wrong. But Pratt gives homework. She has defendants write and read in open court essays she assigns — some include “If I Believed One Positive Thing About Myself, How Would My Life Be Different?” and “Letter to My Son or Daughter.” This gives the defendant an opportunity to learn about herself and the judge an opportunity to learn about a person in a way that rote recitations in court will never reveal.

Procedural justice also requires neutrality. Judges like to own their courtrooms. They regularly refer to “my officer,” or “my clerk,” or “my prosecutor,” or “my public defender.” Judges have to get over themselves and preserve as much of an appearance of neutrality as possible. (If you are a judge reading this review, you know exactly what I mean.) Procedural justice also means making sure that the people in the courtroom actually understand what is going on. Speaking legalese, even among counsel and the court, won’t work. Use the language of the people who are most affected by the court’s ruling. Finally, procedural justice requires respect. Be courteous to everyone in the courtroom; ask them how they are doing; use their names and look them in the eye. And spend the time — even when the docket seems to already be overwhelming.

As noted by Pratt, “Researchers found that when judges spent an increased amount of time with defendants during court hearings — specifically, an average of three minutes or more per defendants — recidivism was reduced by 153 percent more than in courts where judges spent less time.” Read that again. Judges can save hours or days by just spending a few more minutes engaging with the person.

For cynics, the assumption is that engaging in too much social work in a courtroom will signal the judge is weak. But that has not been Pratt’s experience. In fact, the shorthand community slogan for her is: “Judge Pratt don’t play.” In other words, she makes it clear that a defendant does not have to personally like her, but has to respect the process. If defendants swear in her courtroom, they must publicly apologize. If they don’t follow the court’s directions, they must answer to her and publicly account for their behavior. If defendants do not follow the program, here is her likely response: “You do understand that if I release you, and you don’t return, I’m going to smoke you. There’s no conversation, no explanation. You are going to go to jail every time I see you.”

Second, a better approach is in teaching judges how to really hear defendants and let them know that they have been heard. In one poignant story, Pratt speaks of a husband and wife who seemed at war with everyone in the courtroom. They were combative, abusive, and irrational. Out of desperation, Pratt just asked the question: “Do you two have a problem?” In fact, they did. The husband blurted out, “We lost our daughter.” The couple had lost a child in a drive-by shooting. Their grief had nowhere to go. They were walking time bombs in a system that had failed everyone. Create a justice system where there are services for people — social services of all types — so that the underlying causes of unlawful behavior can be addressed. Pratt is not advocating for an overly lenient approach. But let’s stop thinking of everyone who comes through our courts as some type of mass murderer. Many are damaged people.

Third, procedural justice requires that a judge use wisdom — something that cannot be taught in judge’s school, but should be present in those we select as judges. For example, when a defendant told Pratt that she has been suffering from a fatal disease (lupus) for 24 years and that is why she felt hopeless and didn’t care about her behavior, Pratt looked at her and said, “You have been telling yourself the wrong story. You can’t have a fatal disease for 24 years.” You beat the disease; you are the victor.

Fourth, “be curious, not judgmental.” By being curious, judges may actually learn what is causing the defendant’s behavior, and it will definitely lead to the defendant’s perception that the judge has actually seen her. Someone has invested in that defendant’s life. As Pratt puts it, “Justice requires seeing a person’s humanity — the whole person and their circumstances.” People are, as Pratt would say, “more than the events that bring them to court.”

Fifth, judges must be humble enough to accept they will not always be right in their decisions. Judges have made mistakes for years and those have resulted in people unfairly spending decades of their lives in prisons. By improving one’s perception, a judge is likely to do a better job than by simply reading some guidelines.

Sixth, appreciate how much poverty contributes to criminal behavior. People who are poor don’t eat enough, may not have housing, are unlikely to have higher education, and generally do not receive adequate health care. For example, one man who appeared before Judge Pratt had rotting gangrene in his foot with a stench that was overwhelming. However, law enforcement focused on his criminal behavior and brought him to court instead of a hospital. Those who work for the judge need to know they are problem solvers as well. The justice system is costly in so many ways, including the disruption and expense that comes when defendants must miss work to appear. For Judge Pratt, every day she experiences “the confluence of poverty, trauma, and the criminal justice system.”

Seventh, be sensitive to the mentally or physically disabled. Chances are that they have been teased or belittled for much of their lives. Find out how to best address their needs. Asking a person who can’t read to write an essay is not the right approach to fulfill their need for procedural justice.

Pratt’s book is filled with great ideas for making our criminal justice system better — from procedural justice for everyone to violence-reduction programs and teen courts for younger defendants. However, “the secret sauce is the enthusiastic, highly skilled, service-oriented professionals.” The goal is not just to change the defendant before the court, but have that person, if they go to prison, explain to the next generation why there is a better way.

Pratt is ready to get off the current criminal justice treadmill. She uses common sense, humor, wisdom, and compassion to accomplish her goals. I hope that many other judges will be willing to do so as well. This book should be the bible for every judicial orientation and training. Judges, you can do this!

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Laurie L. Levenson is a professor of Law and the David W. Burcham Chair in Ethical Advocacy, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.