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Victoria Pratt: How judges can show respect

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In halls of justice around the world, how can we ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect? A pioneering judge in New Jersey, Victoria Pratt shares her principles of "procedural justice" -- four simple, thoughtful steps that redefined the everyday business of her courtroom in Newark, changing lives along the way. "When the court behaves differently, naturally people respond differently," Pratt says. "We want people to enter our halls of justice ... and know that justice will be served there."

- Professor
Judge Victoria Pratt is inspiring a global revolution in criminal justice. Full bio

"Judge, I want to tell you something.
I want to tell you something.
00:13
I been watching you
00:16
and you're not two-faced.
00:18
You treat everybody the same."
00:20
That was said to me
by a transgender prostitute
00:23
who before I had gotten on the bench
00:27
had fired her public defender,
00:29
insulted the court officer
00:31
and yelled at the person
sitting next to her,
00:33
"I don't know what you're looking at.
I look better than the girl you're with."
00:36
(Laughter)
00:39
She said this to me
00:41
after I said her male name low enough
00:43
so that it could
be picked up by the record,
00:46
but I said her female name loud enough
00:49
so that she could walk down the aisle
towards counselor's table with dignity.
00:51
This is procedural justice,
also known as procedural fairness,
00:56
at its best.
01:00
You see, I am the daughter
of an African-American garbageman
01:01
who was born in Harlem
01:05
and spent his summers
in the segregated South.
01:06
Soy la hija de una peluquera dominicana.
01:09
I do that to make sure
you're still paying attention.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:14
I'm the daughter of a Dominican beautician
01:16
who came to this country
for a better life for her unborn children.
01:18
My parents taught me, you treat everyone
you meet with dignity and respect,
01:22
no matter how they look,
no matter how they dress,
01:26
no matter how they spoke.
01:28
You see, the principles of fairness
01:31
were taught to me at an early age,
01:33
and unbeknownst to me,
it would be the most important lesson
01:37
that I carried with me
to the Newark Municipal Court bench.
01:40
And because I was dragged
off the playground
01:44
at the early age of 10
to translate for family members
01:47
as they began to migrate
to the United States,
01:51
I understand how daunting it can be
for a person, a novice,
01:54
to navigate any government system.
01:59
Every day across America
and around the globe,
02:02
people encounter our courts,
02:05
and it is a place
that is foreign, intimidating
02:08
and often hostile towards them.
02:11
They are confused
about the nature of their charges,
02:15
annoyed about their encounters
with the police
02:19
and facing consequences that might impact
their relationships, their finances
02:22
and even their liberty.
02:27
Let me paint a picture for you
02:29
of what it's like for the average person
who encounters our courts.
02:30
First, they're annoyed as they're probed
going through court security.
02:35
They finally get through court security,
they walk around the building,
02:40
they ask different people
the same question
02:43
and get different answers.
02:46
When they finally get
to where they're supposed to be,
02:49
it gets really bad
when they encounter the courts.
02:51
What would you think if I told you
02:55
that you could improve
people's court experience,
02:56
increase their compliance with the law
03:00
and court orders,
03:03
all the while increasing
the public's trust
03:05
in the justice system
03:08
with a simple idea?
03:09
Well, that simple idea
is procedural justice
03:11
and it's a concept that says
03:15
that if people perceive
they are treated fairly
03:17
and with dignity and respect,
03:20
they'll obey the law.
03:22
Well, that's what
Yale professor Tom Tyler found
03:24
when he began to study
as far back in the '70s
03:27
why people obey the law.
03:30
He found that if people
see the justice system
03:33
as a legitimate authority
to impose rules and regulations,
03:35
they would follow them.
03:40
His research concluded
03:41
that people would be satisfied
03:43
with the judge's rulings,
03:47
even when the judge ruled against them,
03:49
if they perceived
that they were treated fairly
03:51
and with dignity and respect.
03:53
And that perception of fairness
begins with what?
03:56
Begins with how judges speak
to court participants.
03:59
Now, being a judge
04:04
is sometimes like having
a reserve seat to a tragic reality show
04:06
that has no commercial interruptions
04:12
and no season finale.
04:14
It's true.
04:17
People come before me handcuffed,
04:18
drug-sick, depressed, hungry
04:21
and mentally ill.
04:24
When I saw that their need for help
04:28
was greater than my fear
of appearing vulnerable on the bench,
04:31
I realized that not only
did I need to do something,
04:35
but that in fact I could do something.
04:38
The good news is is that the principles
of procedural justice are easy
04:41
and can be implemented
as quickly as tomorrow.
04:45
The even better news,
that it can be done for free.
04:48
(Laughter)
04:50
The first principle is voice.
04:51
Give people an opportunity to speak,
04:53
even when you're
not going to let them speak.
04:55
Explain it.
04:58
"Sir, I'm not letting you speak right now.
04:59
You don't have an attorney.
05:01
I don't want you to say anything
that's going to hurt your case."
05:03
For me, assigning essays to defendants
05:06
has been a tremendous way
of giving them voice.
05:08
I recently gave an 18-year-old
college student an essay.
05:12
He lamented his underage drinking charge.
05:16
As he stood before me reading his essay,
05:20
his voice cracking
and his hands trembling,
05:22
he said that he worried that he
had become an alcoholic like his mom,
05:24
who had died a couple of months prior
due to alcohol-related liver disease.
05:28
You see, assigning a letter
to my father, a letter to my son,
05:34
"If I knew then what I know now ..."
05:38
"If I believed one
positive thing about myself,
05:40
how would my life be different?"
05:43
gives the person an opportunity
to be introspective,
05:45
go on the inside,
05:48
which is where all the answers are anyway.
05:50
But it also gives them an opportunity
05:52
to share something with the court
that goes beyond their criminal record
05:54
and their charges.
05:58
The next principle is neutrality.
06:01
When increasing public trust
in the justice system,
06:03
neutrality is paramount.
06:07
The judge cannot be perceived
to be favoring one side over the other.
06:08
The judge has to make a conscious decision
not to say things like,
06:13
"my officer," "my prosecutor,"
"my defense attorney."
06:17
And this is challenging
when we work in environments
06:21
where you have people
assigned to your courts,
06:24
the same people coming
in and out of your courts as well.
06:27
When I think of neutrality,
06:31
I'm reminded of when I was
a new Rutgers Law grad
06:32
and freshly minted attorney,
06:36
and I entered an arbitration
and I was greeted by two grey-haired men
06:38
who were joking about
the last game of golf they played together
06:43
and planning future social outings.
06:47
I knew my client couldn't get
a fair shot in that forum.
06:49
The next principle is understand.
06:54
It is critical that court participants
understand the process,
06:57
the consequences of the process
07:02
and what's expected of them.
07:05
I like to say that legalese
is the language we use to confuse.
07:07
(Laughter)
07:12
I am keenly aware that the people
who appear before me,
07:13
many of them have very little education
07:16
and English is often
their second language.
07:18
So I speak plain English in court.
07:21
A great example of this
was when I was a young judge --
07:24
oh no, I mean younger judge.
07:26
(Laughter)
07:28
When I was a younger judge,
a senior judge comes to me,
07:29
gives me a script and says,
07:32
"If you think somebody
has mental health issues,
07:33
ask them these questions
and you can get your evaluation."
07:35
So the first time I saw someone
07:38
who had what I thought
was a mental health issue,
07:40
I went for my script
and I started to ask questions.
07:42
"Um, sir, do you take psycho --
um, psychotrop --
07:45
psychotropic medication?"
07:48
"Nope."
07:50
"Uh, sir, have you treated
with a psychiatrist before?"
07:52
"Nope."
07:56
But it was obvious that the person
was suffering from mental illness.
07:57
One day, in my frustration, I decided
to scrap the script and ask one question.
08:01
"Ma'am, do you take medication
to clear your mind?"
08:05
"Yeah, judge, I take Haldol
for my schizophrenia,
08:08
Xanax for my anxiety."
08:10
The question works even when it doesn't.
08:13
"Mr. L, do you take medication
to clear your mind?"
08:15
"No, judge, I don't take
no medication to clear my mind.
08:18
I take medication
to stop the voices in my head,
08:21
but my mind is fine."
08:23
(Laughter)
08:25
You see, once people
understand the question,
08:26
they can give you valuable information
08:29
that allows the court
to make meaningful decisions
08:31
about the cases that are before them.
08:34
The last principle is respect,
08:36
that without it none
of the other principles can work.
08:39
Now, respect can be as simple as,
08:43
"Good afternoon, sir."
"Good morning, ma'am."
08:46
It's looking the person in the eye
who is standing before you,
08:49
especially when you're sentencing them.
08:52
It's when I say,
"Um, how are you doing today?
08:55
And what's going on with you?"
08:57
And not as a greeting,
08:58
but as someone who is
actually interested in the response.
09:00
Respect is the difference between saying,
09:03
"Ma'am, are you having difficulty
09:06
understanding the information
in the paperwork?"
09:08
versus, "You can
read and write, can't you?"
09:10
when you've realized
there's a literacy issue.
09:13
And the good thing about respect
is that it's contagious.
09:16
People see you being
respectful to other folks
09:19
and they impute
that respect to themselves.
09:21
You see, that's what
the transgender prostitute was telling me.
09:23
I'm judging you just as much
as you think you may be judging me.
09:27
Now, I am not telling you what I think,
09:31
I am telling you what I have lived,
09:33
using procedural justice
to change the culture at my courthouse
09:36
and in the courtroom.
09:40
After sitting comfortably for seven months
09:42
as a traffic court judge,
09:45
I was advised that I was being moved
to the criminal court,
09:47
Part Two, criminal courtroom.
09:51
Now, I need you to understand,
09:55
this was not good news.
09:56
(Laughter)
09:58
It was not.
09:59
Part Two was known
as the worst courtroom in the city,
10:01
some folks would even say in the state.
10:04
It was your typical urban courtroom
with revolving door justice,
10:07
you know, your regular lineup
of low-level offenders --
10:11
you know, the low-hanging fruit,
10:14
the drug-addicted prostitute,
10:16
the mentally ill homeless person
with quality-of-life tickets,
10:19
the high school dropout petty drug dealer
and the misguided young people --
10:23
you know, those folks
doing a life sentence
10:28
30 days at a time.
10:31
Fortunately, the City of Newark
decided that Newarkers deserved better,
10:34
and they partnered
with the Center for Court Innovation
10:37
and the New Jersey Judiciary
10:40
to create Newark Community Solutions,
10:42
a community court program
10:44
that provided alternative sanctions.
10:46
This means now a judge
10:49
can sentence a defendant
to punishment with assistance.
10:52
So a defendant who would
otherwise get a jail sentence
10:56
would now be able to get
individual counseling sessions,
10:58
group counseling sessions
as well as community giveback,
11:01
which is what we call community service.
11:04
The only problem is
that this wonderful program
11:06
was now coming to Newark
and was going to be housed where?
11:09
Part Two criminal courtroom.
11:12
And the attitudes there were terrible.
11:15
And the reason that
the attitudes were terrible there
11:17
was because everyone who was sent there
11:20
understood they were
being sent there as punishment.
11:22
The officers who were facing
disciplinary actions at times,
11:24
the public defender and prosecutor
11:28
felt like they were doing
a 30-day jail sentence on their rotation,
11:30
the judges understood
they were being hazed
11:35
just like a college
sorority or fraternity.
11:37
I was once told that
an attorney who worked there
11:42
referred to the defendants
as "the scum of the earth"
11:44
and then had to represent them.
11:48
I would hear things from folks like,
11:51
"Oh, how could you work
with those people? They're so nasty.
11:53
You're a judge, not a social worker."
11:55
But the reality is that as a society,
we criminalize social ills,
11:58
then sent people to a judge
and say, "Do something."
12:02
I decided that I was going
to lead by example.
12:06
So my first foray into the approach
came when a 60-something-year-old man
12:08
appeared before me handcuffed.
12:12
His head was lowered and his body
was showing the signs of drug withdrawal.
12:14
I asked him how long he had been addicted,
and he said, "30 years."
12:19
And I asked him, "Do you have any kids?"
12:23
And he said, "Yeah,
I have a 32-year-old son."
12:26
And I said, "Oh, so you've never
had the opportunity
12:29
to be a father to your son
because of your addiction."
12:32
He began to cry.
12:36
I said, "You know what,
I'm going to let you go home,
12:38
and you'll come back in two weeks,
12:41
and when you come back, we'll give you
some assistance for your addiction."
12:43
Surprisingly, two weeks passed
and he was sitting the courtroom.
12:46
When he came up, he said,
"Judge, I came back to court
12:50
because you showed me more love
than I had for myself."
12:53
And I thought, my God,
he heard love from the bench?
12:56
I could do this all day.
13:00
(Laughter)
13:01
Because the reality is that
when the court behaves differently,
13:02
then naturally people respond differently.
13:05
The court becomes a place
you can go to for assistance,
13:08
like the 60-something-year-old
schizophrenic homeless woman
13:11
who was in distress
13:15
and fighting with the voices in her head,
13:16
and barges into court,
and screams, "Judge!
13:18
I just came by to see how you were doing."
13:21
I had been monitoring her case
for a couple of months,
13:24
her compliance with her medication,
13:27
and had just closed out her case
a couple of weeks ago.
13:29
On this day she needed help,
13:32
and she came to court.
13:34
And after four hours
of coaxing by the judge,
13:35
the police officers and the staff,
13:39
she is convinced to get into the ambulance
13:41
that will take her to crisis unit
13:44
so that she can get her medication.
13:46
People become connected to their community
13:49
when the court changes,
13:52
like the 50-something-year-old man
13:54
who told me, "Community service
was terrible, Judge.
13:56
I had to clean the park,
and it was full of empty heroin envelopes,
13:59
and the kids had to play there."
14:02
As he wrung his hands, he confessed,
14:04
"Judge, I realized that it was my fault,
14:07
because I used that same park to get high,
14:10
and before you sent me there
to do community service,
14:13
I had never gone to the park
when I wasn't high,
14:15
so I never noticed
the children playing there."
14:18
Every addict in the courtroom
lowered their head.
14:22
Who better to teach that lesson?
14:25
It helps the court reset
its relationship with the community,
14:28
like with the 20-something-year-old guy
14:33
who gets a job interview
through the court program.
14:36
He gets a job interview
at an office cleaning company,
14:39
and he comes back to court to proudly say,
14:42
"Judge, I even worked in my suit
after the interview,
14:44
because I wanted the guy to see
how bad I wanted the job."
14:49
It's what happens
when a person in authority
14:54
treats you with dignity and respect,
14:58
like the 40-something-year-old guy
who struts down the aisle
15:00
and says, "Judge,
do you notice anything different?"
15:03
And when I look up,
15:06
he's pointing at his new teeth
15:07
that he was able to get after getting
a referral from the program,
15:10
but he was able to get them
to replace the old teeth
15:13
that he lost as a result
of years of heroin addiction.
15:17
When he looks in the mirror,
15:21
now he sees somebody who is worth saving.
15:22
You see, I have a dream
15:25
and that dream is
that judges will use these tools
15:27
to revolutionize
the communities that they serve.
15:31
Now, these tools
are not miracle cure-alls,
15:35
but they get us light-years closer
to where we want to be,
15:37
and where we want to be is a place
that people enter our halls of justice
15:41
and believe they will be treated
with dignity and respect
15:45
and know that justice
will be served there.
15:48
Imagine that, a simple idea.
15:52
Thank you.
15:55
(Applause)
15:56

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About the speaker:

Victoria Pratt - Professor
Judge Victoria Pratt is inspiring a global revolution in criminal justice.

Why you should listen

Judge Victoria Pratt has gained national and international acclaim for her commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. As the Chief Judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, a busy urban court, she spent years gaining a deep understanding of how justice could be delivered to court participants in a manner that increased their trust in the legal system. While presiding over Newark Community Solutions, the Community Court Program, she provided alternatives to jail to low-level offenders. These alternatives included community service, individual and group counseling sessions, and her signature assignment of introspective essays. Her respectful approach has had a positive effect on court participant’s court experience -- and how the community viewed the court.

Pratt is now serving as a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, an institution that has always been committed to social justice. Her teaching load includes problem-solving courts and restorative justice. As a graduate of Rutgers Law, she is excited by the opportunity to influence the minds of future lawyers and judges with innovative and humane ways of dealing with court participants.  She also continues to champion criminal justice reform through her consulting firm Pratt Lucien Consultants, LLC, by sharing her skills and approach with others.   

Pratt’s work has been featured in The Guardian and Rutgers Magazine (both written by Pulitzer-winning author Tina Rosenberg.) As a nationally recognized expert in procedural justice and alternative sentencing, she has been asked by numerous professional organizations and jurisdictions to share her story and philosophy. Judge Pratt has also appeared on MSNBC's "Melissa Harris Perry Show," the Emmy-winning PBS show "Due Process," and National Public Radio's "Conversations with Allan Wolper."

Pratt is licensed to practice law in both New Jersey and New York and is admitted to the US Supreme Court. She also facilitates empowerment sessions to help people live their best lives.

(Photo: Erik James Montgomery) 

More profile about the speaker
Victoria Pratt | Speaker | TED.com