Judge Victoria Pratt’s “The Power of Dignity”

Listen to this episode

Dahlia Lithwick: This Ad Free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

Speaker 2: Dignity is important in the law, in the justice system, because one of the things that the justice system does is that it robs people of their dignity. We acknowledge that dignity is important because one of the greatest things that we do is diminish it when people come through our system.

Dahlia Lithwick: Hi and welcome back to Amicus. This is Slate’s podcast about the courts and the law and justice with a capital J. And we are into our summer series where we look at some big books, movies, podcasts, whatever. That made a huge difference to us. And this week we are talking to Judge Victoria Pratt. Her new book, The Power of Dignity, was published this past May by SEAL Press. As chief judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, she spent years thinking about how justice could actually be delivered to defendants and how, as judges, there is a part to play in building back trust in the justice system.

Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: When I read her book this past winter and Disclosure, I did blurb it. I was really struck by the ways in which Judge Prep thinks about centering dignity and dignity in justice. It’s a word that we don’t use often enough, and it has a real place in public discourse. It’s really informed the way I think about justice right now.

Dahlia Lithwick: My only other coda is that we need more judges on this show. We’ve had a couple Judge Robert Lesniak came on. It’s really important for the American public to hear from judges and former judges about how they think and what they do. So to all you judges and former judges out there, please take a page literally from Judge Pratt’s book. Don’t just write books, be on shows, be in the public discourse, because we need to hear that you are real people. It’s part of why the integrity and the dignity of the court is something that feels so elusive.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: So with all that, it is such a joy to introduce the Honorable Victoria Pratt. She served as the chief judge of the Newark Municipal Court, is a professor at the Rutgers Newark School of Criminal Justice, and she is taught at Rutgers School of Law. Her TEDx Talk How Judges Can Show Respect has been viewed over 30 million times. Judge Pratt, welcome to Amicus.

Speaker 2: Thank you for having me on. And I always say judges don’t get invited to the party. So it’s nice to hear that you actually want us to come to this one.

Dahlia Lithwick: Yeah. I mean, I really do feel as though the beating heart of this book is that judges have such a role to play, not just in seeing people and hearing people and doing justice, but in re building the integrity and the dignity of the court system itself. Like this isn’t just a project about, Oh, we need to see the dignity in the defendants that come before us. It’s that we have to rebuild trust. And there’s no way to rebuild trust if your face and your voice and your heart are not in the game.

Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: So I think it’s so essential that you wrote this book, but be that you were willing to come on and talk about it. And I wonder if we can start, Judge Pratt, where you started, because your sort of origin story of your family, of growing up, of how you managed to find a place for yourself in law school, in the legal system and eventually on the bench is a really amazing story that I don’t think, well, it happens every day. I just don’t think we hear it enough.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: So can you tell us a little bit about how you got here and where you came from and where your family came from?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: I’d love that you want to start there because when I got stuck in the book, which was many times, I sat with a friend of mine and he said to me, Your problem is that you’re trying to write this book not from the beginning, but from the middle. And I think that if we all really go back to the beginning, it will improve how we serve as professionals and servants on the bench.

Speaker 2: So I’m the daughter of an African-American garbageman who was born in the 40. If he was born in Harlem, USA, as people from Harlem believe, it’s his own state, and he spent most of his summers in the segregated South. And that really framed and defined who he was as an African-American man. Raising children. My father never felt like he had the full rights of citizenship in this country, and that’s challenging because he was a citizen of this country, but never felt that he fully could act and be without there being a penalty for his existence.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: I remember seeing someone come to our house. An elderly white man came to our house to get my parents involved in one of those predatory mortgages. And I remember being so frustrated watching my father be deferential to this old white dude who was in my house. And he would say, Yes, sir, yes, sir. And I was like, Why are you doing that? But I didn’t understand and I didn’t fully understand until much later was that my father was responding in survival mode because he had to behave a particular way to survive as an African-American man in the forties, in the fifties, in this country. And fortunately, his children didn’t have to be that way.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: But it really shocked me when I learned why he had to behave that way. Initially, as a kid, I felt ashamed, like, why is he looking down? I now understood that looking white men in the face, in the eye, in the South could be his death warrant. And so how do you put those things together and then raise children to be healthy and not afraid in this country?

Speaker 2: So how do I look? Arab-American. I am the daughter of a Dominican beautician who came to this country for a better life for her unborn children. So first generation, I grew up in a household where I was the eldest English speaking child. And so that meant that all of my mother’s friends and our families turned to me to help them resolve their issues, particularly navigating government systems, which I, at that point, at eight and nine years old, understood how difficult it was for a person to just navigate a system that was supposed to be set up to help them. But in fact, it did not. And so learning how to advocate for people at an early age.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: But my parents made sure and maybe because they were treated with such little dignity, maybe because they were treated with such little respect, insisted ensure that their children behaved in a different way. And so I was taught to be respectful no matter how people looked or how they behave.

Speaker 2: My mother had a beauty salon in the city of Newark, and this always ironic is four blocks away from where I became the chief judge who would have known that little kid who was running from beauty salon supply stores to beauty supply stores would later preside over justice in the same city. But. Watching how my mother engaged people. And, you know, we always say, I know I was going to become my parents. I’m not going to become my parents. And then the day I’m sitting on the bench and I’m channeling her and I’m like, wow, my alpha is here. And so when I got on the bench, it just made sense to me that I would see the humanity in people, that I would be engaged in human centered justice, and that I would understand that there were circumstances that brought people into the justice system. Sometimes they’d bring people out of custody and they’re like, How do you become a judge? You’re Ms..

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Alpha’s daughter, because that’s who I am. And I’m like, Oh my God, you got to take them back, because I know them from the community. They’re like, What else is there doing on the bench? But this idea that I knew a person, I thought person and that I had been serving in this community before I became a judge, obviously I respected the law because I became an attorney so that I could do that. I think so much of it was that I became this kind of judge because I was sitting on a bench and I was sitting in a justice system where I would see black and brown bodies get caged before they got an opportunity to shine their brilliance on the world and what that meant to me. I saw a system that pushed the mentally ill, the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable through it, shove them through it, and then penalized them for being poor, black and brown and mentally ill.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: And I decided when I became a judge, I didn’t become a judge because I thought the system was perfect. I knew the system was broken, but I committed myself that I was going to ensure that everybody who came before me got justice, that I delivered justice to every person who came before me. And so my origin story is there. It’s from my parents is from how I lived as an African-American and Latino woman as well, seeing things that are unfair and insisting that something has to be done about it.

Dahlia Lithwick: So I first want to just point out that I don’t know how many years we’ve been recording this show, and that was the first time we got a full burst of Spanish. And I, of course, teared up because I was like, Wow. That needed to happen. It needs to happen now. So thank you. And I think I also want to just read a tiny little section from your introduction, if I may, Judge Pratt.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Sure. Absolutely.

Dahlia Lithwick: Because you said I have walked pass that were paved and prepared for me by people who did not even know I was coming. My ancestors constructed, built, mopped, polished and maintained institutions where I was educated and trained and that they were not permitted to attend. The fact that my ancestors picked cotton and cut sugarcane is not wasted on me. So I served to pay it back and forward. It’s such a resonant passage. It also reminds me so much of what Judge Kidd TUNJI Brown Jackson was saying at her hearing that we stand on the shoulders of these people who may not be visible to you, but they are in my ears all the time. And I love, love that you even as early as your introduction of the book center, your parents, because they’re both heroes. It’s just that we don’t get to hear about that kind of heroism.

Speaker 2: Yes. And if we remember that, if we remember that we owe it, that we owe our service, that we have to do something because of those things. When I think about what it took for me to get here.

Speaker 2: I feel this burst of gratitude and thank you for acknowledging the Spanish because it’s I do it want to legitimize myself but the importance of bringing everything about me to what I do, everything, every gift, every talent, every experience is significant.

Speaker 2: And to remember that I do this because people came before me, for me, it’s beyond who saw me right before I took the bar exam, who is from Southern Pines, North Carolina, moved to Newark. You know, they say black folks ended up in Newark because they heard Newark and thought they said New York and they got off the bus and she ended up in Newark. And she said to me when I was writing about passing the bar, she said, You go and claim victory over that bar because me and your ass, all we could do was clean white people’s homes. That’s the only opportunities we have.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: So the fact that you’re someplace where you can sit for a bar exam is huge. So you go pass it because we cleaned homes, because we couldn’t go to school, because we couldn’t go into those places. And I think about it. So anytime I start to feel, Oh, with me, it’s too much, the world is too big. I’m like, Oh no, this. I’ve been prepared and wired for this stuff and. Just even going to law school.

Speaker 2: I’m a proud member of the minority student program at Rutgers, Newark. But that is because during the rebellions in Newark, the people in Newark did not let Rutgers University off the hook. They went there and said, You put people who look like us in the school. They weren’t trying to go to these classes. They weren’t trying to become attorneys. But they knew that if they didn’t force these institutions, that we wouldn’t be able to get there. So it’s the space of gratitude is thank you if I’m tired, but thank you for what you did to ensure that there’s a fight. And we must continue to fight. And we must show up in our spaces and remember all those folks who came before us. And do what’s right in these spaces.

Speaker 2: So I think that sometimes for judges, we get on to the bench and a couple of things happen. The bench magnifies who you are. I want to say that again. It magnifies who you are as a person. So if you are kind of a jerk and you get on the bench. Yeah. Yeah. Right. And when you get on the bench, oh, goodness, that gets magnified because now you’re not wearing a robe, you’re wearing a cape and a crown. That’s why it’s important that we decide very deliberately who and strategically who gets to get on the bench. But if you are a good person and you really want to do good, you take that authority, that institutional authority, and you do good with it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And I always told the story about now Senator Cory Booker, but then Mayor Booker when he made be a judge. With that, people said the most ridiculous things about why I should become a judge. Oh, she’s too nice. Oh, she’s too little. Imagine someone deciding that I can’t be a judge because I’m too little. And I would say I’m not trying to get on a ride at an amusement park. I’m trying to be a judge. So the reality is you need to be talking to him about my legal acumen, about what my judicial temperament is going to be when I get on the bench and not foolishness. Men never have to talk about how little they are when they get a job. And so this idea that what we envision and what we almost want judges to be are these big, intimidating things. And that has nothing to do with the delivery of justice.

Speaker 2: And the reality is that in Newark, my nickname on the street was Judge Don’t Play. What that means is that she’s tough, but she’s fair and at least she cares about you. Because what I want here’s I’m going to hold you accountable, but I want you to have some opportunities to shift your life and to do better as well. And I don’t work for the police. So every time the police officer, the prosecutor says something, does it mean that I have to believe it? It means that they have to prove it. And so when people begin to see these things, they begin to look at the justice system differently. Right. So you have standing on the shoulders of people who didn’t get justice. I’m committed to making sure that people get justice when they come before me.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: Can you tell us a little bit about your court? Because as I said, up top, a lot of the judges we’ve had on this show sit on federal appeals courts. Right. You are not on a federal appeals court. Tell us just what your courtroom looked like and what kinds of cases you were adjudicating.

Speaker 2: So it’s a municipal court. And so in New Jersey, Newark Municipal Court, which is a low level offense court is the court of first impression is the court that most people will engage. So you’re looking at traffic court, you’re looking at low level criminal cases, you’re looking at housing matters, you’re looking at truancy. Now, the crazy thing about my particular court is that it was the busiest it was the biggest municipal court in the state, the 13th largest in the country. At its height when it was its busiest, it saw like 500,000 cases would come through this court. But because of it’s an urban city like Newark, many of the cases that would go up to the superior court, which are more serious cases, would get downgraded to the municipal court for resolution, particularly criminal cases.

Speaker 2: So I’m looking at simple assault cases, which domestic violence cases. We’re looking at theft cases, we’re looking at drug possession. We’re looking at having drug paraphernalia. We’re looking at, you know, I call it New Jersey’s tricky cases, the wandering charge, wandering to buy or sell drugs. They don’t have to prove that you bought it, but they just have to prove that you were wandering or selling to buy drugs, prostitution, solicitation. And I went years without seeing a john on the solicitation cases. Those are the types of cases that come through disorderly persons offenses, again, which are cases that really for me are the catch all, because it could be behavior that could cause alarm. But most mentally ill people can be somewhere standing, screaming and speaking loudly, and they get caught in there failing to comply with an officer.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: So then you also are looking at the quality of life cases that also come they’re city ordinances. They come as a result of legislation from city council people. So sleeping in public, drinking in public, smoking in public. And those are the cases that typically get your homeless people.

Speaker 2: And then I like to call the cases where you get on the police officers nerves and how those people end up in the court. I can look at a case, you know, obstructing the administration of justice. I’m like, Oh, that looks like you mouthed off at the police officer right now. Speaking back is not an offense, but it’s how folks end up getting caught up in our system as well. Having the audacity to speak when the officer stops you is also another issue. So those are the types of cases that end up coming back. So there are cases that really, I think, impact community. There are cases that most people who get caught in the criminal justice system will face and that keep people on this conveyor belt of injustice.

Dahlia Lithwick: One of the points you make really early in the book is that the folks you see are not hardened criminals. You describe them, quote, people serving life sentences 30 days at a time. These are just folks who are in a loop, minor infractions, self-medicating, mental illness, poverty. And then I think you talk about the rule that you just described, the role that the police play in that cycle. But you describe the role that the judges play in that cycle in really heartbreaking. Term.

Dahlia Lithwick: So, again, I’m going to quote you to you. You say we weren’t delivering justice. Judges were reduced to ineffective bill collectors imposing fines we knew would never get paid. The most vulnerable in the community routinely receive quality of life tickets for having the audacity to exist when they could not afford housing. We were voyeurs observing the worst parts of their lives. We punish them for their hardships. It was if the Green Monster were lying in, wait for people to make a mistake. As people went about their day, it seemed the justice system officials could leap out in a gotcha moment and swallow them whole.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: And so what you just described and what you’re describing in your book is just this completely predatory system where once you are just in this pond of out of luck ness, for whatever reason poverty, race, mental illness, a history of former infractions. It’s as though this predatory and we’ll talk about the sort of actually monetizing poverty because it’s part of this system. But you just become the person who just keeps tagging people for that. And that’s not, as you describe it, anything close to justice. That’s just the absolute what’s the word? It’s the absolute opposite of doing.

Speaker 2: Justice is the antithesis to.

Dahlia Lithwick: Justice. There you go. That’s the word I was looking for.

Speaker 2: How is it fair that. I take a plea on a case. It’s a failure to comply with the officers command, which is move. Now, if I’m mentally ill and having auditory hallucinations and the officer says, move, I don’t know who’s talking to me. That’s real. I don’t move or I’m homeless because I’m homeless and I’m in my space in the sleeping in public while the public is my home, the public is my home. Because instead of addressing the social ill, which is my homelessness.

Speaker 2: City Council legislators have decided to criminalize it. And not address it. And that criminalization of my homelessness is now an ordinance that tells the judge to give me either 30 days in jail or a fine. And now the prosecutor asked the judge to give me a fine. And I say, sure, why not? Because I have to move a case. Right? I’ve got tons of them. But I look at this defendant and I’m like, Madam Prosecutor, have you noticed that he’s not wearing a shoe? If he had $5, he might go buy a shoe. He might get a shoe. But he’s definitely not going to pay this $80 fine and the $33 of court costs. It’s not going to happen.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And then what happens in this space is that now I but I but I take that plea. But it doesn’t serve the interests of justice. So it’s almost it’s a lie. So I’m engaged in this hallucination. And then when he gets picked up for not paying the money, then I have to engage in another form of hallucination, which is revising a time payment so we don’t pay me this money, because that’s literally the conversation.

Speaker 2: When are you going to pay me this money that you said? All he wants to do is get out of my courtroom. And he’s like, Well, you know, I’ll give you $100 when I get my check. I know there’s no check. But even if there is a check, I know that a heroin addict, if they get $10, they’re buying heroin. So this again, this conveyor belt and we engage in it. And it’s embarrassing to kind of engage in this lie because that’s what it felt like, a lie that I was engaged in. And then you create this space where the city believes that people, all the money that we knew did not exist to be paid in the first time.

Speaker 2: And so, once again, on the backs of poor people, on the backs of the mentally ill, on the backs of the marginalized. The city is expecting revenue. And that’s not service. That’s not what legislators are called to do. That is not what the executive branch is called to do. And because they are poor people that nobody cares about, because they are marginalized people, this cycle continues to happen. And so if you get a ticket, even if it’s a traffic matter and you have money, you pay that and take yourself to your job because it’s cheaper to pay the ticket than it is for you to come sit at the courthouse all day.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: But if you live in a space that’s heavily policed. So in the city of Newark, there are about 26 agencies that write summonses and complaints. So that includes the local police, New Jersey Transit Police, the three universities that have their own police force. The county police can Conrail Amtrak’s police. So even if you work in Newark, the chances of you being stopped by the police increases. But if you live there and if you live in a community in a part of the city, that is especially police, meaning that police operations are focused there, then your chances of being stopped and getting caught up in this cycle increase.

Speaker 2: And as I mentioned earlier, it could be how you respond when the police stop you, what’s on you, your failure to clear a corner when they command you. People have this assumption that, oh, if they got a ticket, if the police got involved, obviously they did something. If the police got involved, if the police arrested you, well, obviously you’re guilty. So that’s why I call judges, too. Like you need to understand your communities.

Speaker 2: When I drive down the street and I see a line at 7:00 in the morning and it’s a doctor’s office that also has a pharmacy connected to it. And I know that the people that are in the line are addicted to heroin and opioid. What are they giving away for free in this space? What I know is that people who have Medicaid and Medicare, you can give them a prescription for 56 OxyContin. And those 56 cartons are now going to be on the street. So it’s not just looking at the low hanging fruit because that’s what we get. I’m concerned about this doctor who’s prescribing this and how this impacts the drugs that are in my community. It’s not as clean as people think. But again, if we just tell all these people are bad.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: That’s why the opioid crisis was interesting, because once people started to see their children, it was never a crisis to me because I had been serving the white children from wealthy suburbs who were taking the bus to Newark to buy drugs. And I was telling them, Oh, you come here, you’re going to do community service here. Because while they were doing community service, I knew that an older heroin addict was going to be in their ear about this is what your life is going to look like. And I was getting them on the bus to drug treatment as well. So it’s more complicated than these little presumptions that we have about people. And it has to be important, even if it’s not your own child, even if it isn’t someone who looks like you, because those same tough on drug laws now apply to the children of the wealthy, you are coming through the system. So now we’re looking at these things differently.

Dahlia Lithwick: I’m in my head connecting everything you’re saying about criminalizing poverty to conversations we’ve had on this show with people like Vanita Gupta from the Leadership Conference, now from the Justice Department, who just talk about the ways in which we saw that Ferguson and the report around Ferguson would blow open the ways in which if you are policing for profit and money and fees and fines, the system cannot possibly have the correct incentives. And one of the things I love in your book and your descriptions even now of what you saw in Newark, is that the fallacy that this only happened in Ferguson is a fallacy, that it’s everywhere.

Dahlia Lithwick: Before we talk too much about the sort of guts of your book is this notion of procedural justice. It’s the guts of all the work you’re doing on reforming the justice system. And I want to just give you a moment to talk about it, because I think there is going to be a reflexive tendency to address this at points in the book to say this is just some flabby feel good, you know, kind of there’s no meat on the bones here. And you start with meat on the bones and you start with Tom Tyler, the Yale psychologist who was thinking about this back in the seventies.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: And all of the substantive, meaningful criminal justice reading you’ve been doing that informs the ways you put procedural justice into action. So I want to give you an opportunity here to sort of describe what it is, define what it is, tell us what it means, and really help us understand that this is actually undergirded by meaningful criminal justice research. This isn’t just feel good hippy dippy stuff.

Speaker 2: Thank you for that bit of this stuff. I love that. So I didn’t even realize I was practicing procedural justice. But it’s this idea that if people believe, if they perceive it, they understand that they’re being treated with dignity and respect by the justice system. That not only does it increase the public’s trust in the justice system, but it also increases compliance with the law. And it also increases compliance with judges decisions even when the judge rules against them. So that also includes judges orders to behave in a particular way, to do certain things, to bring information to court. And I found that.

Speaker 2: This idea of treating people with dignity and respect. While it sounds simple and it is a simple idea. It’s actually one of the last things that happens when people come to our justice system, and it’s from the moment that they walk into court, how they’re treated by security. This perception of what justice is. Begins with the first contact with police and how it gets this trust in the system further deteriorates based on how many contacts. And I describe in my TEDTalk this idea of just walking in to the courthouse to be heard. This is before you’ve declared whether you are pleading guilty or innocent, and how people are mistreated by the process and disrespected by the process.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: I always say that the traffic cases are sometimes the most horrible because people are coming to court to fight about the principle of the matter, how they were treated by the police officer. They feel that they were mistreated. And so the principles of procedural justice are, one, giving people with an opportunity to speak, even when you’re not going to let them speak. Explaining why, that’s a sign of respect.

Speaker 2: I used essays also to help give people voice in court why we should care that they have something to say in this process. And we should care because the whole criminal action, the whole action is greater than just the allegation that you see before you. It’s bigger than that. And so that’s why voices and people come to court. They want you to hear what happened to them, why they shouldn’t be here, why this other person. And this includes victims. The state hijacks the entire process from victims and further victimizes them in the process.

Speaker 2: And so this other idea of neutrality, the process has to be neutral. It has to be as we engage in this process as well. And that includes how judges speak, though, when you look at the studies behind why procedural justice is effective, one of the main things is the relationship between the defendant and the judge.

Speaker 2: And so how judges speak, how judges behave. This idea of neutrality is significant. Most judges think that they are behaving with neutrality, but it’s what happens when people come into your courtroom and there are processes that you’re allowed to take, like conference in cases at the bench. Most offenders can’t come to the bench to hear. And there people are thinking, why is it that they have to go up there and have that secretive meeting about my case? Why can’t we hear? Why can’t I go up there? When you go in, the back is even worse. You can’t even feel what’s happening in this process. Can judges do it? Absolutely. Does it take away from this idea of what is being neutral?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Absolutely, yes. This idea that in most of our cases, we take private attorney first, they come to court. We have to take those private matters first. Well, we know that we take private attorneys matters first because they typically have cases in other courts. And you don’t want to hold up the entire state’s process. But the person sitting in your court who’s representing themselves is like, so this person’s going to get a better deal. Because look at that. That attorney came in here 20 minutes late. I’ve been here for an hour and that case gets to go first. How the judge engages with their court staff, if they’re joking around, you know, an officer arrested the person. So if the judge is being too chummy with the officer, what does it look like to the person?

Speaker 2: Sometimes I’ve been in a court where the judge looked at the officer who made a recommendation and did it, and I’m like, Oh, now the officer gets to arrest and tell the judge how to determine what to do with the case. I know the judge didn’t even think that the people in the courtroom were considering it, but it was very obvious.

Speaker 2: Then there’s this really significant principle, which is understanding the process, understanding what’s expected of you, understanding what’s required of you, understanding what the people are talking about. I like to say that legalese is the language we use to confuse, you know, the running joke. If the judge asks the person, are you proceeding pro saying the person says, no, judge, the prosecutors, the pro, I’m the amateur in the law. It just means the face is are you representing yourself? Why is it challenging? Why is it difficult to do that?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And many of us as judges don’t think we have a responsibility to explain these things. And so how can you ensure that the process is fair if people don’t understand and you haven’t done anything to ensure that they can understand, but then you definitely want to punish them when they don’t comply with your orders. You definitely do that, even though you confuse the hell out of them the entire time they sat in court.

Speaker 2: There’s a part of the book that I talk about, Speed Court, and I compare it to my experience with speeding. How do you know what just happened? And we’re looking at consequences that take away people’s finances and take away their liberty. Why is it not significant? And the last principle, which is respect, making sure that people are being treated respectfully. And that requires you to know that say good morning means something. Good morning. There’s a jurisdiction that the judges are told that if they are going to make a negative ruling for the person, that means sending them to jail, not returning their bail, imposing a bill that they’re not to look the person in the eye. Yikes. Not to look them in the eye. I promised myself that no matter what I did on the bench, I would look people in the eye. Because if I can’t look them in the eye, I need to rethink the decision that I make. Right. That’s on me, not on them.

Speaker 2: Judges have said you can read and write, can’t you, when they’re having difficulty understanding information. But all you have to say is, are you having. A challenge, understanding the information in the documents when you realize there’s a literacy issue. Literacy. They can’t read your order, so they can’t comply with any of it. And literally calling people what they want to be called when they come to court. Why is that so challenging? Sometimes people think that if they treat people respectfully, it diminishes them. And if the actual opposite, it makes you bigger. I love that respect is contagious. I found that when I treated people respectfully, Fox sat in a courtroom and they were like, Wow, the judge is really respectful, so I’m going to behave a different way when I get up there. So they had this expectation that everybody’s going to be treated the same. They expected fairness because they saw it before they got up there. And they also behaved respectfully.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And so when they do these studies around procedural justice, they found that there was a significant reduction. They’ve done them mostly in drug courts because those judges practice procedural justice versus the traditional court. But they found that within 18 months that there was a significant reduction in the use of drugs or reporting, because these folks felt a relationship of respect with the judge. The judge cared about them. The judge saw them. And I tell you, I talk a lot about that as well in of this idea that you should see people and hear them.

Speaker 2: So these are all requirements in delivery of justice. This shouldn’t be optional. But I think that we as judges think that when I see and sit with folks, I’m shocked if I know the law and I’m confused about this process. What does this layperson understand in this process? And most importantly, your staff also has to begin has to practice this, because before you get on the bench, people have already made a decision about what kind of justice they’re going to receive. And what we know is, I told you that the bench magnifies who you are. The staff will be whatever the judge is, they follow your lead. And I think that’s in any organization, whatever is happening at the top is what you receive as it trickles down.

Speaker 2: So if you’re a respectful judge, your staff will also be respectful. But it also requires the judge to engage in leadership. If I call this person Mr. Smith, you can’t call him Johnny. We treat everybody the same. And respectfully, in this place, even for me, you know, respect meant that I had to treat the whole courtroom like my living room. And if you come to my house, we treat everybody the same because I’ve invited them here. They’ve been summoned to my court and they can’t decide not to come. And I remember having an incident where somebody was chuckling about a transgender person who was in the front. And I addressed it. I addressed it. And I think the person with mental health came and they were talking to themselves. I addressed it because this is my courtroom and I set the standard for how people behave here. You can have a seat outside if you can’t. Be respectful of the people here. But this is a safe space because I want folks to come here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And procedural justice. You can do it for free. You can do it for free. Judges have had success all around the world doing this, just tweaking what they do in court. And there’s a study that shows that judges, when women are asked the question, they move to the next question quickly. They don’t give them enough time to answer the question. And so a judge understanding that says, oh, hold on, I have to check me because it’s you. It’s your bias. It’s your perceptions of who people are and you have to be. I hope you see this in the book, but this I’m constantly checking the ego. I’m constantly reminding myself to check the ego. I’m constantly reminding myself that this doesn’t always mean that.

Dahlia Lithwick: I was really struck by something you just said and something you said in the book about how one of the components of how you do justice is this burden of explanation that you need to explain. If you are sentencing someone, why they are receiving the sentence, what they can do if they want to fix some of this. And it really chimed with something that I heard Judge Jackson say again and again and again in her confirmation hearings, that when she wrote an opinion as a district court judge, as a sentencing judge, it was essential to her that the party who was being given justice at her hands understand how the system worked and why she was doing what she was doing.

Dahlia Lithwick: And I think because I read your book before I watched the confirmation hearings, I’m so struck by how, again, as you’re saying, it’s free, it’s simple. But if you want people to believe that this justice system serves them, you have to explain to them that it’s working for them, even when they are the sort of recipient of what feels unjust. And it does feel as though, I guess it’s a question I would love to address to Justice Brown Jackson, but I will address it to you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: It is so important, especially when you come from communities. I think that’s what’s glaring to me, where people ignore you, where people ignore your right to have information, where you feel that you’ve never gotten enough information, that you make sure that everybody understands, you know? And it is critical because to me, I didn’t want to be on the bench and be irrelevant. And I felt if you’re on the bench smashing people and giving them these harsh sentences and two days they get out and they’re doing the same things, that makes you irrelevant as a judge. But you cannot expect people to do what you want them to do if they don’t understand what it is they need to do.

Speaker 2: And that also goes to this point, that people are salvageable because when they were given the information to do better, they did better when they were given the information and understood the consequences of not coming back to court, they said, Oh, hold on, wait a minute. If I do these things, the judge will let me do this then. Okay, let me try it. They would at least try.

Speaker 2: And I remember one woman who said she got an opportunity and I talk about her in the book after being on the prostitution store for 20 years, she said, Nobody offered me assistance. Nobody ever offered me help. And while initially she didn’t accept it when she came back, she was like, The judge is offering me an opportunity to do something different. I can try. And then she won’t send me to jail because the law tells her send. And that’s what I had to explain. The law tells me to send you to jail on site because of all of these things on your record. This is your opportunity to do better.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And so this idea that people should why shouldn’t they understand just because they have issues with literacy doesn’t mean I should punish them for that. Just because they don’t have a college degree. The justice system is okay with punishing people because they don’t understand, because they’re not as educated. So who is it meant to serve? Who was it meant to serve? And that’s what I want judges to understand. You’re irrelevant if people are not doing what you tell them to do and they’re not doing it. They’re not disobeying your orders because they’re bad. The disobeying your orders, they don’t make sense. And you’re not telling them what to do. And so that’s why I get angry about a lot of things, as you can tell.

Speaker 2: But if you have the ability to bring them closer and in line with serving the community, and that’s the other thing. We are not serving communities. If we are not getting people to be compliant with our orders and do the right things when they go back into our community. So judges get all we get off the hook. We’re off the hook for everything because people don’t look at whether or not we’re really reducing crime in our communities. They just say, Oh, he’s a tough judge, but what does that mean? What does that mean? Who’s grading you? Judges have to be held accountable. We have to do the right thing for the community as well because we serve them.

Dahlia Lithwick: Judge Pratt, I could talk to you for 12 more years and I have 15 more questions, but I am mindful of your time. And I think I want to ask you this is kind of an inchoate question, but it tugs at me as I read and as I reread your book, preparing for this interview, I’m remembering interviewing Justice Ginsburg years ago and she was describing the South African constitution, the new constitution, but she said in a lot of ways was better than the U.S. Constitution. And one of the things she loved about it was that it really enshrined and embodied this principle of dignity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: And as I said at the top, you know, dignity. I mean, Justice Kennedy talks about it, we hear about it constantly, but it’s sort of another one of those notions that is both everything and nothing. It’s everywhere and nowhere. We talk about it and it has no real legal force. And yet your book ultimately is about dignity and the ways in which if the law is not serving human dignity, it’s not serving it all.

Dahlia Lithwick: And I really want you to amplify why the word dignity is in your title. I want you to amplify. You’ve talked so much about the kinds of folks who have come before you. And just to listeners, this is the tip of the iceberg, because the book describes so many people who are robbed of dignity at every turn who finally get a moment of dignity in your courtroom. But I want you to explain why it is that you who went to law school, who worked within the law and then became a judge, think that dignity, this kind of flabby notion is a cornerstone of the American judicial system and criminal justice system. What does it mean to you?

Speaker 2: I’ll tell you this. Dignity is important in the law, in the justice system, because one of the things that the justice system does is that it robs people of their dignity. We acknowledge that dignity is important because one of the greatest things that we do is diminish it when people come through our systems.

Speaker 2: Right. So it’s almost a lie when we say, oh, it’s that important. It’s very important because it’s one of the things that we make sure people leave without, whether it’s sending them to prison and the conditions that we send them to live in, whether it’s the conditions and the treatment that people go through in the process. And that is why it is our responsibility to heal these communities and to transform justice, because we are deliberately. Taking it away from people who come through our system. And so dignity is the respect that we give people. The idea that people understand the process and what’s expected means that we’re respecting their dignity as human beings.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Why is it okay? Everywhere else in the world that people understand when we engage them except for the justice system? Why does the justice system not have to do that? Why is it okay that people don’t get to speak or voice or hear? We don’t get to hear because when I listen to you. When I acknowledge that your perspective is important. That means I’m acknowledging your dignity as a human being. This is a right that you it’s a human right to be able to walk around with your head held high to some level of degree believing that you matter. And so much of what we do in the justice system tells people they don’t matter whether they’re guilty or not. And so this idea of dignity being a cornerstone, if we didn’t spend so much time robbing people of it, justice would look different.

Speaker 2: So when they say that it’s optional, it’s not optional because we go to great lengths to reduce people for nothingness, excessive use of force. Why do we have to use force on 13 people? Unarmed black men and other people don’t get it. Armed white men. Right. You know, Buffalo happened. And when people say that these principles, you can’t expect people to do it. I use Buffalo as an example. People know how to treat folks. Officers know how to treat folks when they engage them. Look at how many armed white men get to walk away from a murderous spree with their lives. Why is it that an unarmed person of color gets treated differently? And it’s because of how we train folks to engage people who are in the criminal justice system.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: And so. It is important that when you are poor, when we punish you for it again, we’re just diminishing your dignity. We know that when we write law legislators that it’s going to impact certain people more than others, particularly poor people. And we don’t care at all if we don’t care. We reduce their dignity. But if we did care, we increase their dignity and get them to be productive members of society. But then we get to be better.

Speaker 2: So much of my book, I’m talking about dignity, but I’m talking about what we need to do to pour in to people because we extract it from people. That’s what struck me the most. Why do my processes have to be so undignified? Why do I have to reduce people to deliver justice? I don’t. It’s what’s been done customarily because we don’t see the humanity in the people that come before us. So I insist that everybody treat folks even with your employees and your organizations. Why do you respond in one particular way to certain stimuli?

Speaker 2: Yes, dignity is significant because we spend so much time extracting it from people in our criminal justice system by punishing them disproportionately for offenses. So it’s the power of infusing dignity back into our system. And listen, when I say to a person in court, I’m so proud of you, because they’ve done something that they didn’t think that they could do. Come to court on time. Go to a job interview. And they say, Judge, I’m proud of myself. What a new emotion.

Speaker 2: Right. But that goes back to pride and having dignity in myself. They’re now in touch with that emotion that I feel respectful of who I am. And now I can go back into society and maybe think that I can make a contribution. So that’s why this book is about the power of dignity. Making it a priority. Dignity and respect. A priority. Your results and outcomes are different. It is significant because if it wasn’t significant, we wouldn’t extract it from people when they came through our system.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: Judge Pratt The reason I love that so much. Is that it goes right back to where we started, which is that dignity is a two way street. And that when I write and think about the Supreme Court and justices who are demanding respect and regard and dignity for the institution, but who don’t put into practice all these principles we’ve been talking about for an hour, about seeing people and hearing people and treating them neutrally and fairly and having predictable outcomes. All of the tenets that you have wound through, the way you deliver justice. Dignity goes both ways, and it’s not a thing you can demand as a judge. It’s a thing you have to earn.

Dahlia Lithwick: And what you are trying to describe in this book is this two way street where both sides need to buy in. And you are doing the work of saying, I’m in the middle of this, trying to get both sides to buy in. So I love where you landed because I think it’s also where really every judge, every court up to and including the Supreme Court needs to land if we are going to repair this crisis of faith in the judicial system.

Speaker 2: Absolutely. And you talk so much about this idea of legitimacy for people to submit to your governance over them, they must see you as a legitimate authority to impose rules and regulations. So when the Supreme Court does not care about its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, that trickles down to the entire system. People have to know that they are heard.

Speaker 2: People also have to know that there’s predictability in these decisions that are coming out. The person who just came before me got one thing, and then now I show up and it’s different. It can’t be. People have to know that if I if I do that, this is what’s going to happen to me. And it can’t be different based on my race. It can’t be different based on my economics. It can’t be different because of any of those reasons. And it has to be fair. Let me tell you, people know when they’re being treated fairly and not they know fairness. So you can lie about it. But the people know when they’re being treated fairly and they know when your decision is not fair. They know when it’s not fair, and they know when.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: There’s language in these opinions that one of the things that so many of the things that struck me about the draft opinion was how disrespectful the language was towards the previous justices who. World. And I have two points to stop reading. Could you really just say that? About somebody else who sits on the highest court. You don’t have to respect that. Why should anybody else have to respect it? But then why should people have to respect you? They were just so many things that that I couldn’t. I mean, you know, when you’re reading something and you have to walk away.

Dahlia Lithwick: Every.

Speaker 2: Day with my experience, every day, that was my experience. And going back to parts of it that I’m like, But that’s not true. You don’t mean that’s not true because you just said that. If you weren’t concerned about popular opinion, you wouldn’t written this. And I so worry about the legitimacy of the entire justice system, because on top of it being the barrage of things that people, the average citizen seems to have the highest court of the land be disregarded because of its own actions and because of the politicization that we are seeing. And it just really creates agita for me because at the very end, or the people who are now having to deliver justice on having to receive.

Speaker 2: What they know doesn’t feel like justice and this criminalizing once again, instead of us dealing with the social ills now, which is all since the state. But what do the states do? We criminalize the behavior of our most vulnerable and victimize the victim once again. And so I worry. I am worried. I am worried. But I will continue to fight with you. I will continue to be on the front lines with you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Dahlia Lithwick: The Honorable Victoria Pratt served as the chief judge of the Newark Municipal Court, is a professor at the Rutgers Newark School of Criminal Justice and has taught at the Rutgers School of Law. Her TEDx Talk How Judges Can Show Respect has been viewed over 30 million times. And this new book, The Power of Dignity, was published this May by SEAL Press. Judge Pratt, gracias.

Speaker 2: Can I ask you something?

Dahlia Lithwick: And that is a wrap for this episode of Amicus.

Dahlia Lithwick: Thank you so very much for listening in, and thank you always for your letters and your questions. You can keep in touch at Amicus at Slate.com, or you can always find us at Facebook dot com slash Amicus podcast. Today’s show was produced by Sara Burningham. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio and Ben Richmond is senior director of operations for podcasts at Slate. We will be back with another episode in two short weeks. And until then, do take good care.