Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 12
Facing America’s Biggest Challenges
Featuring Judge Victoria Pratt & Lauren Leader
After a string of heartbreaking news in the United States, are we doomed to fear, anger, and a descent into gridlocked politics? Today, Judge Victoria Pratt, an advocate for reforming the criminal justice system, and Lauren Leader, the cofounder and CEO of All In Together, discuss America’s biggest challenges and how each have enacted change in large, complex systems.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are with this podcast, What Could Go Right?, having a series of conversations with people, most of whom are members of The Progress Network, who are in whatever way engaged in the work of making the world a better place, an idea that I think most people respond to with a little kind of wincing, “I don’t know, is the world ever gonna be a better place?” And I think that almost discomfort with the idea of progress, or discomfort with the idea of constructive change, is what animates us in both at The Progress Network and in these conversations. In no way is any of this ignoring or poo-pooing the manifest problems that we confront in the world today. And we’re having this conversation that we’re about to have with two women who are at the forefront of both local government and activism, trying to deal with issues of politics, political inclusion, partisanship. And those are real issues. But how one engages those, and how one tries to ameliorate them versus just fueling and fanning the flames of dissent and anger and fear is the entire point of how we create a future that we wanna live in and not the future that we fear we’re headed toward. So Emma, tell us about who we’re gonna talk to today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So our first guest is Judge Victoria Pratt. She’s a very well-known advocate for reforming the criminal justice system. She was Chief Judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, where she spent years using techniques that increased the public’s trust in the justice system. She’s a globally recognized expert, and her work has been featured in The Guardian, Forbes, The Tamron Hall Show, and many other outlets. She also has a new book out called The Power of Dignity, which is a really powerful read. And our second guest is Lauren Leader. She’s a writer and researcher on diversity and women’s issues. She’s the co-founder and CEO of All in Together, which is a nonpartisan nonprofit that encourages, equips, educates, and empowers voting-age women to participate fully in America’s civic and political life.
ZK: So, let’s talk to Lauren and Judge Pratt.
EV: All right. I’m looking forward to it.
ZK: Thank you both for joining both of us today for—I guess we’ll see what the discussion is like, right? But let’s just like launch into the major elephant in the room. We don’t know exactly when this will be listened to, but it is highly likely that it will be listened to around the time that an actual Supreme Court decision will come out about the precedent of Roe v. Wade and whether or not that’s going to continue to be a precedent, which given everything we know to date seems unlikely. And again, we don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen, but we certainly know that these have been issues that have been brewing for years and years and years. And regardless of what the specifics are of what happens or what has already happened, this is an issue that’s gonna keep brewing for years and years and years.
And I think part of the question is, separate from what all of us probably agree is the right thing, there is this incredible challenge of living in a country where X portion of people firmly zealously believe in something that’s the antithesis of what another set of people zealously believe. And I guess for both of you, given that you are, you know, Lauren you’ve been deeply immersed and engaged in kind of collective action at a political level across partisan worlds, and Judge Pratt, you’ve been dealing with the more pragmatic, like, “what do we do about problems within our communities?” What do we do about that dichotomy that is unusually and egregiously acute when it comes to the right to choose?
Lauren Leader (LL): Yeah. I would adjust the premise a little bit. I think part of what is frustrating to so many people about the Roe decision is that, look, as polarized as the United States are—and we are across a whole range of issues; we’re politically polarized, we’re polarized across gender and lines of race, and certainly across political divides. The reality is that most Americans actually agree on the right to abortion access. And poll after poll after poll, including several that came out just in the last few weeks as the sort of leaked opinion on Roe became public knowledge, reinforced that the majority of both Republicans and Democrats actually wanna see the constitutional right to abortion upheld. And so, I think part of what we’re looking at in this decision and so much of the other issues that are particularly entrenched at the moment and particularly decisive is this sort of emerging sense of minocracy, that the power of the minority in some very key and powerful places in and around our government and in the judiciary are increasingly imposing what is ultimately not a majority view on the rest of Americans.
And I think that’s why people are so deeply concerned about this decision. There is not a groundswell. And then on the flip side—and I’m sure we’ll talk about other things—the gun control issue is not that different, which is that, you know, overwhelming majorities of Americans wanna see some common sense gun control. On Issue after issue like these two, which are the hottest at the moment, you know, you’re seeing really a tyranny of the minority affecting deeply the lives of the majority, which, you know, ultimately is as much a democracy question as anything else,
Judge Victoria Pratt (VP): I agree with Lauren. This idea that the opinion seems to say—and it’s not true that we are not concerned with public opinion—but it seems to be overly concerned with the opinion of the few. So now, the few once again get to penalize the entire country. And this idea of the Court’s legitimacy, what shocked me was how scathing this opinion was about its colleagues. So you know, the Justices writing about other judges who have made these decisions, and it’s almost like just an attack on their opinion, but also this idea that now we talk about the Court’s legitimacy. And it’s been politicized, the entire Supreme Court has been politicized. And now, this opinion comes out, that’s focused on what the few want. And you look at the public’s trust in the Court, and before it was diminished because people know that the justice system itself is broken. But then to play this political game at the highest level… And people can’t trust the justice system unless they see the Court as a legitimate body to impose rules and regulations.
And so, when it does this thing, it becomes illegitimate at the highest level. And then it trickles down to the rest of the court system. So it’s disconcerting to me because what I see is now we are again resulting and reverting back to this criminalization of behavior. And then now we’re criminalizing the people that we’ve already been penalizing—the poor, the marginalized, the abused at our lowest rungs of society. And I say that in terms of economics. And so what the system has already done to them… So now we’re going to add penalizing women, poor women, rural women, women who don’t usually have access to it. So instead of creating a space where we’re actually dealing with the social ills that make many of these women need to exercise their right to have an abortion, we’re now going to criminalize their behavior and find ways to once again put them in our criminal justice system. So it’s just really been unbelievable to watch us go backwards, wherein the entire world has been following our lead and really been going in the opposite direction.
LL: Well, that’s an important point because the United States is one of now only three nations in the world that has rolled back, or is potentially rolling back, abortion rights. In everywhere else in the world, it has expanded. And it has expanded because women’s rights and autonomy are viewed pretty universally as fundamental to a healthy democracy, to a healthy society. These are economic issues and questions of social power. And so, it does make us increasingly an outlier.
You know, I’ve been someone who like actually was a net sort of supporter on the Court. And I have resisted being overly critical of the Supreme Court because I believe in a lot of the core tenants of our system. And Zach, you and I have talked about, you know, after January 6th, there’s so much alarmism about the end of democracy. And, you know, my view is that actually the court system, the justice system actually reinforced what works about our system, right? That ultimately our election was not overthrown, that there was an independent judiciary that ensured the integrity of the election, and that we ultimately had a peaceful transfer of power. So on balance, I tend to see our courts as having maybe more legitimacy than some. But there there’s no question that, in the Roe case, because this majority opinion is being decided by folks that were appointed by presidents who lost the popular election it becomes especially questionable in terms of the, you know, to your point about the legitimacy, right? You’ve got multiple justices that were appointed by, you know, first Bush 43, and then by Trump, both of whom lost the popular election. And so, I think for this question of the minocracy that I spoke to before—I’ve been using the word because I just think it’s so powerful; it’s not mine, but I think it’s amazing. And I think these are like key questions. On the one hand, we do have this independent judiciary that I think has done right by our democracy in a lot of ways. On the other hand, you have these social issues, you know, where we are clearly going backwards.
ZK: We’re all gonna steal the word minocracy.
LL: Thank you. I think it’s Mara Gay from The New York Times.
ZK: We’re all just gonna steal it. It’s done already. Just one thing, just so we’re clear, right? It is at least in the realm of theory that by the time people are listening to this, the decision will have gone a slightly different way. Regardless, the draft that was leaked, that was Alito’s, is a real draft. And it’s probably true that there’s been a lot of intemperate drafts that have never seen the light of day in the history of the Supreme Court. But regardless of how this goes in the short term, it speaks to a sensibility and a movement that’s pretty profound.
LL: Yeah, and look across America. Regardless of the Roe decision, you’ve got millions of women who already think they don’t have the right to abortion, or who don’t have access because even, setting aside the Roe decision, in so many states access to women’s healthcare has been so restricted. And you had states like Mississippi that had like one remaining abortion clinic for the entire state. You know, we already saw that women in Texas were having to, you know, cross state lines in order to access care. So, you know, in some ways, the Roe decision, as monumental and critical as it is, the fact is that access to healthcare for women, particularly rural women and low-income women in the United States has been on the decline for a long time. We have raised enormous barriers to access. And it’s part of what’s tied to the maternal mortality crisis, right? Access to healthcare generally has declined when it comes to women.
VP: But this idea that the nation looked at hearings for nominees who said one thing, and then became justices, and then did another thing. And what that means to the American people who spend a lot of time listening to the hearings and believing them—when there’s no belief in the system, what happens? Chaos arises. So those are my concerns about this idea that our Supreme Court was, you know, held in such esteem. And I don’t think that that’s going to be the case. And this idea also of leaving it to the states—well, based on what we’ve been seeing across the country, there’s not a lot of trust in our states. There’s not a lot of trust in how people are getting elected, and voters’ rights are in question. We have these people who are not even allowed to vote in states anymore. But once again, we revert to criminalizing vulnerable people. And that’s not the direction we need to be headed in.
EV: So I’ve kind of gotten to the point in the conversation where, you know, you both are describing so eloquently these massive issues. And I start to think like, yes, I mean, you’re right. I agree with everything that you’re saying. And then it’s like, what do we do about this, you know, on the anti-chaos part of the equation? And I’m asking you both as people who have worked in the large, complex, gridlocked systems and have actually done things with them. So what would your advice be to people who are listening to this and are like, “Ahhhhhhhh, what do we do now?”
LL: Well, I do think, you know, since we’re talking about what can go right, et cetera, look, I think there actually are some signs of progress and possibility all around us. And one of them is the Georgia primary, which, you know, Georgia enacted these super-restrictive voting bills. And I’m someone who goes around the country teaching people, you know, core civics and how to vote. And I spend a lot of time in Texas and elsewhere, where it takes like an hour to explain to people the voter ID rules and how difficult… All the things about what they need to do and how to show up and how to cast a ballot. And, you know, it’s unquestionably more difficult than it was. But what’s amazing about Georgia is the turnout was off the charts. And that’s what’s really incredible is that in the face of a really challenging environment and these questions about the legitimacy of our election, voters turned out. And by the way, as usual that’s heavily black women. They turned out heavily on the Republican side because it was a very hotly contested national race on the governor’s race that everyone was paying attention to, and the sort of referendum on Trump, et cetera. But voters turned out. And I think that is a real sign that, you know, when the chips are downAmericans do understand their civic responsibility. And I think that we saw that for sure in 2020. The numbers of young people who came out to vote broke every record. And we are seeing a lot of political activism and sort of activism around change among younger Americans.
And there are some mismatches here because like, on the one hand, a lot of—for instance, the unionizing movements that are happening in places like Starbucks and Amazon—all of those movements are being driven by young folks, right? And that’s really incredible, and it’s powerful, and they’re winning in just pretty amazing ways. On the other hand, there’s a lot of disillusionment. And young voters have very high expectations of their elected officials. And there’s this sense that like, if they don’t get what they want—because they voted for somebody, you know, particularly now the Democrats—are they gonna stay and stay involved?
And so, you know, people need to see these things as a long game. But the fact is that there’s lots of evidence that our system works when people take ownership of it and step forward and are undeterred. And, you know, my hope is that some of these threats and the sense of, you know, losing ground, particularly on civil rights issuesthat that’s going to continue to be galvanizing to people to see. Like, if you don’t own this, somebody else is gonna own it for you. And you’re gonna wind up with a result you don’t like. And so I’m actually kind of optimistic about it. I think there’s a growing… As much as people are tired and burned out and overwhelmed, all the polls that we look at show that these really shock-to-the-system kind of events can be very galvanizing for people and get them to the polls in ways that they might not otherwise.
On the question of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, so one pushback to that would be that except for a brief period in the sixties and seventies the Supreme Court’s often been a really regressive conservative force in American life. It certainly was that way post-Civil War, you know, with striking down a lot of the Civil Rights Act. It was that way before the Civil War, upholding the Dred Scott Decision—which by the way, there’s a great piece by James Traub at Politico about the precedential problem of throwing abortion rights to states and the [Fugitive Slave Act], where you basically allowed southern states to like hunt down people in the north, which became a real problem for state sovereignty. So I guess part of the question would be, you know, one of the potential maladies of the United States in the past few decades is kind of a holding up—both on the Right and the Left—this period from like 1950 to 1980 or ’90 as the definition of like what the United States is. Either, you know, the Reagan Revolution on the one hand, or major social progress reforms in the sixties and seventies on the other. And maybe that’s kind of not who we have been, right? And the Supreme Court as a force that has often been completely inimical to progress or progressive change—small-p progressive, not left-progressive. And you’ve been like immersed in the criminal justice and in the justice system, which has hardly been a shining beacon on the hill of us at our best for a long while.
VP: So I think that what we need to focus on is this progressive space that we’ve been in. I love that Lauren was talking about all these young, excited folks who are out there really shifting systems and engaged in activism almost at the level of I’ll say their grandparents, or almost their great-grandparents, who were involved in the system. So being focused forward as opposed to where we were doesn’t really, I think, help us. Because we are in this space, especially after the racial upheaval in this country, of looking more progressively at where the country needs to be going. What I would like to see—and I think that we’re almost in the spaces after this era of Trump— that we begin to have conversations across party lines, but around issues. And I think that we are in a better place where we begin to stand behind, like, “this is what we want,” even if it’s on separate lines of our parties. But that’s what America really needs to be. We don’t have to always agree on who’s in office, but we do need to agree on what’s best for us.
So what could go right is being in these spaces where people are having more conversations about, let’s be on the same page on gun control. We want our children to be able to go to school. We want our parents to be able to drop kids off to school and not be dropping them off for school and the emergency room at the same time. Like, that’s a huge fear for us right now. I mean, I dropped my son off this morning, and I’m not just concerned about safety because of the people who work there that I’ve, you know, watched them on the camera all day, but about what might happen in this space, what political feelings people may have in this space, what other parents are doing to watch their children to ensure that my children are safe.
So I think that we’re willing to just literally accept, like, these are all our children, these are our responsibilities and having more progressive conversations about “this is what I wanna see.” And so, when Lauren was talking also about this idea of holding people accountable, I’ve been screaming about that. People keep asking, “Oh, how do we have a more compassionate judiciary?” Well, you get people elected, and you put this on the agenda, and you hold them to it once they get elected. So much of what we do is, oh, we rally behind a candidate, and we forget that it’s really about service to people. And then they get elected and we don’t hold their feet to the fire about it. So yeah, I’m about one-term elected officials. They need to understand that they don’t have a right to these positions. And as somebody who’s worked in the executive branch, as someone who’s worked in the school district, as someone who’s worked for legislators, we have to remind folks that four years is a short period of time. And for some folks, there’s only two years. But being in their face about these things that we need for our communities. It’s just unacceptable that we are repeating the same… We’re seeing this level of violence in our community, and then we have a moment of silence, and then we scream and yell about it, and then no one’s safe again.
EV: So there’s a sort of interesting tension or thread here between what Lauren was talking about with high expectations and then this accountability aspect you know, of our politicians that you were just talking about, Judge Pratt. And I’m wondering how to thread that needle, right? Because there’s an interesting thing that happens where there are high expectations. And then instead of the accountability part coming in afterward, what happens is like, “well, that didn’t work,” and apathy, and like, “well, screw this. I’m not gonna be involved anymore.” So what’s the fix for that? Is it like a messaging issue? [Laugh.] What do we need?
LL: Oh, it’s so much more than that. I mean, look, part of what I get out of bed every day to go do is exactly this, which is to try to give women the tools to hold their leaders accountable and speak up on the issues that matter to them in a way that actually influences and makes a difference. And I think, there are a few things. One is that we have a bit of a civics crisis in this country. People don’t actually really understand how our political process works. And for women who are the majority of the electorate, right—more of us are registered to vote than any other Americans—we have an outsized potential influence on our political process. For women that lack of civics education often keeps them on the sidelines. So they feel that they don’t know enough to speak up and act up. And so, like, we try to make it really accessible. And the Judge is exactly right that we have to understand that we have to hold people accountable and pay attention once they’re elected and, you know, call them and write to them and get to know them.
You know, people think of politics in the United States as this like big, faraway thing, right? It’s the thing on CNN, and it’s the people in Washington, and it’s the Supreme Court and all these folks we’re never gonna meet. But, you know, the fact is that so much of what happens in this country is determined at the state and local level. And we have mostly not paid attention to local elected officials. So in many of the states—for instance, Oklahoma’s a really good example of this; Oklahoma, which just passed this complete all-out ban on abortion after the point of conception. Well, if you look at the Oklahoma statehouse, first of all, there’s only about 20% women in the Oklahoma state legislature, okay, so let’s just start with that. Second of all, there’s about three times as many Republican elected officials in the Oklahoma statehouse as there are registered Republicans in the state. So they’re overrepresented, and part of that is because they’re overrepresented in white male Republicans. That is not actually reflective. Oklahoma is a conservative state, but there are a lot of other states in the country where you see this, where there are these elected bodies that actually don’t fully represent the will of the people. Some of that is gerrymandering and political gamesmanship, but a lot of it is because people don’t pay attention. Seventy percent of Americans can’t name a single person who represents them. That’s at the federal level. If you start asking them, like, who’s your state rep?, most people can’t tell you. And that’s a shame. And I think it’s a real sort of fundamental lack of understanding about how powerful our state governments are, and how much they control, and why we need to be engaging with them.
And most of them represent very small numbers of people. It’s actually incredibly easy to call up your state Rep or your state Senator and say, “I live in your district. I wanna sit down and talk to you. Here’s three of my friends, and we’re all concerned about this same issue in our community. We’d like to know where you stand on this. And we’d like to tell you about our life experience and why this matters so much for us.” Like that’s the kind of accessible government that I think, you know, it’s a big country, it’s a big system—Americans don’t see that. But you know, on issue after issue after issue so much of this gets kicked back because we have this endless fight over states rights versus federalism. The state governments matter a lot, in a lot of places.
And I also would just say, I think Democrats—I’ve said this over and over again—I think part of the problem is that Democrats have never really sufficiently paid attention to state legislatures and Republicans have done an exceptionally good job of investing in local government, you know, down to the school board level. That’s why we’re having fights over critical race theory in school boards across the country. That’s because Republicans have invested in electing very conservative folks to school boards, whereas Democrats haven’t been as engaged. So like you gotta know the rules of the road in order to make a difference.
ZK: I am totally guilty as charged of this. I mean, weirdly enough, until the pandemic—I’m a lifelong New Yorker; I’ve lived elsewhere, but more or less—and I never paid attention to local government. I hardly paid attention to city hall. And look, I’m someone who should at least have been somewhat aware of the power of state governments, particularly in terms of public health, right, and just the sheer scope of authority. And I’m not saying that critically, I’m just saying like it had not even really occurred to me other than the occasional movie where the governor declares martial law. And you’re like, wow… [Laugh.].
But I was wondering, Judge Pratt, for you, because you’ve talked about the accountability of officials, and Lauren, you’ve been elected to local office. There is this debate in American society over whether or not judges should be appointed or elected, right? The thing in favor of elected is that they’re accountable. The thing against them being elected is that they’re panderable. The thing in favor of them being appointed is this idea that judges and justice should be above the partisan fray. Where do you come out on this in terms of, how do you make judges accountable? Other than what you’ve talked about, which is there should be some internal moral compass, but that’s probably harder to pre-predetermine.
VP: Well, I end up being in the middle about this. And one of the reasons is because in elected states, you find that there are more judges who are women and more judges of color when the state itself is allowed to elect its judiciary. This idea of appointing judges is significant as well, because it goes back to… I love that Lauren is talking about local government. I mean, an example of civics is that in a place like Newark, we have over 150 people who are actually registered voters. In our last election, less than 30,000 people came out to vote to elect our officials. So what that means is that tiny political machines in our local government decide who gets to be in office. People don’t understand that because they’re just like, “Oh, I’m a voter, but I don’t participate in local government.”
But it’s that machine that then decides who gets to be your representative, and your representative really needs to be an extension of who you are, coming out to local meetings and looking at the budget numbers. “Hello, What is this line for?” Like, so we’re talking about this conversation of defunding police. In communities of color, folks aren’t saying we wanna defund, we don’t want police here. We’re saying, look at that budget and see where the money is and shift it somewhere else. So when we’re talking about electing judges, appointing judges, once again, this is something that needs to be on the agenda when we’re electing people. I want justice to look this way in my community.
In Newark, when we started our Newark Community Solutions program, which was the alternative sentencing program, they actually had hearings in each ward and talked to folks and said, “What do you want justice to look like down at Green Street?,” which was also known as the Green Monster to its citizens. This idea that justice was this place that went out and it was a monster. And they wanted that image to also change. So they decided, we want these guys who are out on the corner to get jobs. So that means that, now, this newly elected mayor needed to appoint judges who would be compassionate, who would be looking at justice differently. But that meant that you had to hold the mayor and the council who voted on them accountable. So come to the meetings and start yelling about those things. Use your ward representative to ensure that those things happen because recall is real. So when Lauren starts talking about people, not knowing what powers they have, they don’t know that that is a tool at their disposal. And when people get into office, I’m like everybody else can get fired, but elected officials in the middle of their job, no, there’s a tool for you to deal with that as well.
LL: Fun fact: In parts of Europe, and particularly in France judges are neither appointed nor elected. They take an exam. It’s a profession, and you have to be trained and certified by a federal body as a qualified judge. And it’s a totally different system, but it’s also a lot less political. And I mean, we’ll never do that. But I find it really fascinating. I thought it was really interesting. Like, it’s a profession. You trained to be a judge and you trained to be a lawyer. And so it has a certain amount of objectivity to it, which I thought was… Maybe it’s not equivalent, but I was impressed.
VP: That’s interesting, Lauren, because I was actually in Europe on a panel, and I had a British judge stop me. And he was like, “In this country you would never be a judge.” And I looked at him and I thought… And he talked about this idea of schooling. But who gets to get into those programs? The elite of the community gets to be in that space, right? And so you start looking at it like… I think a couple of years ago in Great Britain, they were trying to diversify their Supreme Court. So they had all these interviews and all these things. And what did they find? They put another white woman on their Supreme Court. So I’m like, you know, their systems, of course, people set up their systems to perpetuate themselves. So I just, I almost fell out laughing when he said that to me, I was like, oh, I see why.
LL: It’s not what you thought he was gonna say [laugh].
VP: [Laugh.] No, absolutely not. And I’m like, “That’s why your justice system looks the way it does.” [Laugh.]
EV: It’s nice to have the reminder every once in a while that the US does do some things right in comparison to Europe. Because I feel like a lot of the conversation here’s like, “Europe has done everything correctly, and the United States is a giant mess.”
Judge Pratt, I have a question for you, and of course for Lauren as well, about making decisions based around fear. It’s part of this conversation about how we have these conversations to get onto the same page to move us all forward. You know, I was thinking when you started doing things a little bit differently in the newer court systems, that that involved a certain amount of risk for you, for the politicians that, you know, brought the idea for everyone, right? And if you had brought that idea to the community and a discussion about that, there very well could have been a lot of like fear-based conversation. Like, “Well maybe this will lead to higher crime. I don’t know if this is gonna work,” and you know, blah, blah blah. So yeah, I was wondering if you both have any insight around that, like how to structure conversation so it’s not based around fear, but around like, hey, the future might not be worse, it could be better if we do this thing.
VP: Well, for me, what we were doing wasn’t working. We had been ignoring people’s ills and their mental illness and their poverty and all the situations that were driving them into the criminal justice system. And we were engaging in this hallucination of imposing fines and costs that we would never see, and having the police spend all their time on this conveyor belt of injustice, of just bringing people into the justice system because they owed money that we knew they couldn’t pay. And so, yes, there’s this fear that, oh, people might not be happy about what it is I’m doing, but this commitment that I made, that I was gonna deliver justice no matter what was happening… I always joked that I said, “Oh, when Cory Booker”—who then was the mayor who had appointed me—”finds out that I’m in here, letting these people go home and not bringing the money…” But fortunately for me, he was absolutely committed to this idea of criminal justice reform, bringing in this community court model, an alternative justice model.
But I think we just have to do that which is right no matter what’s happening around us, I thought I’d get one term on the bench, but I would’ve done that which was right during that one term. And I would be able to sleep at night knowing that I was trying to serve not just the people who came before me, but also the community. Because we weren’t preventing people from going out and committing further crimes because we were giving them these harsh jail sentences for being drug addicts and not providing them with an alternative to getting off drugs when they came out of jail after 60 days. On the 61st day, they were still a drug addict who was gonna go out into the community and commit the same offenses that they had committed to drive them into the system. So having this program that actually gave them counseling and had them sent to drug treatment made sense. Like, I’ll do anything, but it has to make sense. And so much of the problem I find is that in our institutions, we engage in patterns. We engage in customary behavior that just doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t serve anyone. So yes, it’s being afraid and doing it anyway.
EV: What about for you, Lauren? Because there’s still the case where there’s lots of things in the United States—gun reform is a great example…
Clearly what we’re doing isn’t working. But we can’t seem to get people onto that conversation of like, let’s try some new things. And I think that fear is a large part of that equation. They talk about how, when you start the conversation around gun gun control, it leads to a lot more gun sales because people are afraid. And I’m kind of just wondering about how to get around that, how to get people to the, hey, we can try something else and it might very well turn out for the better.
LL: We have nowhere near enough time to get into the like long-range questions about our most intractable issues, like gun control. I mean, look, there are a few things that come to mind. One is that I do think that we have cultivated a culture of fear in this country. Some of it is because we’re a really big place. People are really spread out and they don’t know their neighbors, and we’ve created a lot of social isolation, and that gets fed by a machine that kind of keeps alienating people from each other. And I think there’s a lot of that that is, you know, tied to this armament, like this just incredibly excessive number of weapons that Americans carry, and the proliferation of hate and hate crimes and especially violent acts from people that are extraordinarily isolated and alienated. This is clearly part of what has happened in our country, that we have moved very far away from a sense of community and caring for each other. There’s a sort of lack of compassion, I think.
But on the other hand, you know, again, I think that like part of what gets masked by the political realities, right, the fact that we have these intractable issues in our politics that seem not to be able to be solved because we’ve got a 50-50 Senate and, you know, divisions being the way that they are. It really hides the fact that, actually, most Americans really agree. And I think that continues to be overlooked somehow. Because our divisions are getting so hyper-amplified, they overlook the fact that most Americans agree, right, that like 80% of Americans agree on gun control.
And ultimately, we have been able to prove over and over again in our political system that when our citizens engage, and when they take ownership of the process, that things change. I mean, they do. And the Judge is right. Like, we have a midterm election coming this November. The founders were very wise in the way that they established our system, in many ways. There were plenty of flaws, but one of the things they got right was that the House of Representatives was meant to be the voice of the people. And they set them up to be running every two years because for the very point that the Judge made, they’re supposed to be accountable. And they are. And we saw in the last election record turnout that, you know, really did lead to a different result. And it took the country in a vastly different direction than it was going.
And so, you know, I’m a believer in democracy, and I’m a believer in the good of our system. It’s flawed and it’s broken, but ultimately, we do have the ability to influence it and to change it. And I think, you know, as depressing as January 6th was, to me it also reinforced the strength of our system in a lot of ways. That it withstood the attack. That we had a peaceful transfer of power. That ultimately, the president was sworn in, and that he represented the views of a majority of people. He was not elected on the Electoral College. So, you know, I think there are signs everywhere of what’s possible when Americans engage. And I believe gun control is one of those issues. I think every issue are those issues. But the question is, how motivated are Americans to speak up?
ZK: So here’s another one that people seem to be relatively unified on that’s a much thornier problem…
LL: Oh, thornier than gun control? Wow.
ZK: Thornier than gun control, which is that people are pretty ubiquitously scared, particularly in urban areas, of rising crime, regardless of their political persuasion. And for someone, you know, who grew up in New York in the 1970s, where the sheer, actual crime rates—and this is absolutely true of Newark as well, Judge Pratt, and it’s true of every single major city in the United States, with the possible exception of Chicago and a few others—relative crime rates are so vastly lower than they were. And I’ve tried to point this out to people. I mean, they’re vastly lower than they were in 2008. They’re about where they were in 2012 in most cities. And yes, it’s true that human beings live at their high-set point, right? Everybody always remembers their highest income and their lowest price. Everybody always remembers when things were at their best, not, you know… And they use that as a set point in the present. But it is nonetheless true that ubiquitously around the United States, people are worried about crime, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, in urban areas. Some of that’s refracted through political lenses. It’s always been true in New York for instance, that the New York Post from the 1970s to the 1980s to the ’90s to the present loves the kind of, you know, crime porn as a way of selling newspapers. And even though crime is up in Miami, no one pays as much attention to it because the current narrative about Miami is that it’s, you know, the place we should all move.
But I do wanna ask both of you about what one does… You know, I’ve certainly had the experience of, there is nothing that people find more incensingly insulting than quoting statistics in the face of feelings. So you can say to somebody, “look, crime is not as bad as you feel it to be,” but that is a completely counterproductive way of engaging. So I guess, first Judge Pratt, you’ve had to deal with like, what is the way to engage this when there is both a reality that we should honor, and there is an emotional experience which also needs honoring? And those two may not line up.
VP: Well, we do have to remember that sometimes our emotions lie to us, right? And people, I think, right now are relying on that, that they can stoke our feelings, and it’s not true. So what’s concerning me about this argument about crime being on the rise is the people who wanna talk about it aren’t looking at who’s fanning the fire, who’s saying that we need to return to this war-on-crime or war-on-drugs perspective. And it’s all the folks who lost money because of the criminal justice reforms, right? And the criminal justice reforms weren’t even in place long enough to correct all of the ills caused by this “tough on crime,” which was not even smart on crime. And so, I’m looking at people who were looking at bail reform saying, “Oh, it’s because people don’t have bail,” when we know that bail reform is really helping low-level, non-violent offenders who were just sitting in court because they owed small amounts of money on bail, and they were quality-of-life cases in that sense.
So who lost money? Well, people who go out and help poor people post bails, right? So bails bondsmen are really upset about this. Police unions, this idea that it’s impacting our overtime budgets and how many police officers get hired. Corrections officers—if we’re not sending everyone to jail, what does the county jail look like if nobody’s sitting in there? So my conversation is, look at who benefits from returning to these things. Because you’re right crime… And yes, people feel unsafe, but people also have to understand that the pandemic and quarantine did a lot of things to people. People who had mental health issues didn’t have access to services and people who could help them. I mean, in my book, I talk a lot about how the court was a resource where people could just come and sit, and what happens when you no longer have that place where you can just go because you’re decompensating. The hospitals were turning people away. And it was a place where what we call our frequent flyers would go, like, “I just need my shot so that I can deal with these auditory hallucinations for a month because that’s what this shot does for me.”
And so we need to really address those issues. And people who weren’t healthy before the pandemic, they were less healthy. And people who didn’t have signs of mental health issues, it triggered it. So let’s talk about that because that’s really the underlying cause. That’s really what needs to be addressed to deal with some of these things that we’re seeing. I mean, we’ve never experienced these things. So, to just say that it’s one thing that caused it is untrue. We live in a place where people get to lie, and nobody checks them on it. Nobody pushes back on this misinformation that people say.
I was just another part of the country, and something as simple as like, this guy told me to go another way. And I was like, ah, and so I just turned around. And he made a remark about herd mentality and got off the train. And I was like, was he just saying I had herd mentality? And I just, I’m not even used to hearing such foolishness in conversation that I went up to him and said, “Listen, I was following the person with the key, but I don’t even understand what you’re talking about.” But it’s language that’s moved into our culture that people just believe lies and repeat them. And we need to start having conversations about the truth, I guess. It’s just the truth. I just, I get tired of hearing it on television and on the radio and on podcasts.
EV: Judge Pratt, I’m kind of interested how that interaction ended, because it strikes me that it’s very unusual that you actually went up to him and were like, “Hey, let’s talk about this.” I can’t imagine myself ever doing that. I’d be like, no. [Laugh.]
VP: Oh, no. He was walking beside me. And since he wanted to have a conversation about herd mentality, I was like, you know what I did was this. I didn’t need to be aggressive. He wanted to say something. I needed to say something back. And so it was very casual and, you know, I guess he thought I was crazy to even be talking to him because I was a stranger. But I talk to strangers. So, you know not having to be afraid to have a conversation with the person who’s sharing space with you…
LL: You know, Zach, I grew up—like you in New York—I grew up in Washington DC, which was the murder capital of the world in my childhood. It had the highest per capita murder rate of any major city anywhere. And you know, that was my childhood in the seventies and eighties in Washington DC. And I think there’s a few things going on. Like, there is a part of it, which is, I think, people feeling unsafe in New York is heavily tied to the proliferation of, as the Judge said, like mentally ill folks on the streets and how much that has ratcheted up. And of course like the visible homeless population, which has exploded in recent years, and that there were so many folks that left and it created all this economic instability. There is a sort of need to—clearly in big cities—address some of what makes people just uncomfortable walking down the street, whether or not they actually are facing any real danger. It’s a shift in the tenor that makes people feel uncomfortable.
But I think the other thing is that our cities have become like Beverly Hills. The wealth that has moved into major cities… We are much less economically diverse in a lot of ways in big cities than we were. So, you know, you’ve got real polarization of like poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods. And so I think some of it is that, you know, all over the country where you’ve got, you know, wealthy white people, frankly, that live in cities and enclaves that they expect to be a certain way in this kind of wealthy bubble of privilege. And they don’t wanna see somebody suffering on the street around them. And for a lot of years they sort of didn’t. Because that was, you know, the Bloomberg years. The city was pretty sanitized and the homeless got pushed away. They weren’t on 72nd street. They were elsewhere. And we didn’t see it. And so people didn’t think it was real. So all of that I think plays into it.
But I’ll add one last thing, and I know you and I agree on this, Zach, which is that, you know, Americans love to cultivate this culture of fear. You know, this sort of like, the sky is always falling and everything’s a catastrophe. And social media certainly doesn’t help. We call it doomscrolling for a reason. You spend five minutes on social media in the morning and it pushes up your heart rate and your anxiety level. And like, that’s real. It creates a sense of just fear and anxiety all the time that I think is contributing to this.
And by the way, I’ll just add that I also think it’s part of the like political apathy. And Emma, you started it by saying like, and I talk about this all the time, this sort of overwhelmingness of these issues, right? Like you go on your phone in the morning and it’s the polar bears and it’s the crime rate and it’s Covid and it’s the shootings. And it’s all the stuff. And that is very easy to get numb from that and to turn off. And part of what we try to encourage people to do in order to keep their energy and their focus and their enthusiasm for change-making, is to really just focus on one issue that like really matters to them. Because it’s urgent, it’s something they have personal experience with, and they can relate to it in a deep way because it gets them out of bed and it fires them up.
And we really ask people to just pick one area that they wanna make a difference on. If it’s climate, if it’s abortion rights—pick one. And give yourself the grace, and give yourself a break, that you can’t solve all the problems of the world. Because there is like a mental piece to this, which is this stuff is all very overwhelming. And the fact is, like, you can chip away at problems, but not if you’re trying to chip away at all the problems, right? And it’s not to tell people not to care. But if we actually want movement, if we want progress, if we want change, that requires sustained focus over the long term. And you can only do that if you make a real commitment to do that work over the long term.
ZK: Emma had a great piece which she did for us about a year ago, called “How to Read the News Without Losing Your Mind.”
ZK: It was kind of a way of going about this. And we’ve talked about doing a Chicken Little Index, which we kind of wanted to do at one point.
LL: Oh, that’s good.
ZK: It didn’t seem right during the pandemic, because the pandemic seemed like a legitimate moment when the sky might have actually been falling. And therefore, you know, that would’ve been the wrong time. There are occasional moments where the sky is falling.
VP: But in line also with what’s going right, maybe what we do is encourage people who want to speak the truth to begin to speak. And I like that I’ve been running into folks who were spending a lot of time on social media, fighting, trolling, and responding to comments and decided, “I’m gonna use my voice to give people the proper information.” And that, for me, is shifting. Institutions shifting, cultures. It’s the shift that we need to see. People who really have something to say. People who want to propose a solution coming out and being able to have this conversation.
You know, you mentioned gentrification—as I like to call it, “rentification”—and how it impacts communities where people were living all across urban countries. You know, they’ve been there since the rebellion, since the cities were burnt down, and then they start looking at their cities, they’ve been holding up the entire tax base. And it’s only the downtown area where the wealthy are coming that are now being built up, and how that makes people feel, and how eminent domain takes people’s homes from them, and that creates this homeless situation. And how the folks who get to build just get tax abatement and don’t have to pour anything back into these communities to assuage some of this homelessness.
So that’s why I get frustrated. I’m like, we’re quick to write an ordinance to make it illegal to sleep in the park, but we’re not quick to attach money to the tax abatement that the developer gets to help the situation of transitional housing that we need, and pouring back into the education system, to creating jobs and training for the people who live in that community.
So there are solutions that are not big-idea solutions. It’s just making people do it. And again, the people who need to come to these council meetings, making people do it. If you wanna be reelected to this office, this is what we need to see. And we need to have monthly meetings with you coming back to your district to see who’s getting what they want, the lobbyists or us who actually vote. So I just think there are real, certain grassroots, local government things that really need to happen, and that can happen if people know that they have the power to do these things.
ZK: And the challenge of all this, which is part of Emma’s point about reading the news without losing your mind, and part of what you’re talking about, Lauren, of, you know, the daily dose of relentless, “everything is going wrong simultaneously…” And look, one of the things we’re addressing with The Progress Network is just, the human desire for dramatic stories gets in the way of telling the story that, Judge Pratt, you just told about the bit by bit, the step by step, right? It lacks the kind of narrative oomph of something going dramatically, critically wrong.
Jim Fallows once said, “look, I can go into a small town in West Virginia, spend three weeks there, interview everybody about how they’re dealing with the opioid crisis, and how they’re dealing with jobs and recreating their communities. And I’ll write a piece reporting about how their problem-solving. And I’ll put it up.” He was writing for The Atlantic at the time. “And 50,000 people read it,” which is a lot, and it’s great. He said, “Or I can write a 20-minute response to a Trump tweet and put it up, and it’ll get a million hits.” Right? And part of that’s just like where human beings gravitate towards in the drama matrix. But absolutely, I mean, people should pick up your recent book, and Lauren’s book, and any other bit of news.
I think we’re at the end of a time period and the beginning of a conversation. So, I’d like to see this as part of an ongoing dialogue and not a one-off 50 minutes. But I want to thank you both for your thoughts and your work and your input. And keep at it.
VP: Thank you for having us.
LL: Thank you.
EV: Thank you both.
So at the end there, I love that mix that we were getting into between the practical and the emotional. I’m really glad that Lauren mentioned the sort of emotional-mental component of this, because I was thinking, you know, when you asked your question about, when you give someone the statistics that actually it’s safer than it was four or five years ago, I was thinking about asking you—half-serious, half-joking; 50-50 here—like, did you try validating their emotions first, right before you gave them the statistics?
ZK: I did. Although these were often people who were less emoting their fear than kind of truculently presenting a political standpoint, often in juxtaposition. Like, I mean, the Miami thing is funny because there’s a lot of people, at least in my world, who have been trumpeting, “Oh, everybody should move to Miami,” or they should move to Austin or wherever it is. And then you show them the reality that the crime numbers going up are kind of the same as they are everywhere else, except people don’t feel it.
I think the validation is always important of, this is a weird few years, right? Between the pandemic and opening and money. I think it’s hard for people to feel at ease with the world as it is given how bizarre the world has been and how unclear it is where we’re going. So that part, I feel like all of us share, in our ways, I mean, whether or not we affix it to crime or we affix it to inflation or we affix it to political instability or war or what have you, there’s a ubiquity of that experience, right? We’re all somewhat in terra incognita and somewhat like, “Oh, I don’t… Like, what’s this world that we are now in that has been so completely upended and yet is not so completely different on the other side of it being upended. So I totally agree that we should all acknowledge that there’s a degree of, it’s an unsettling moment—there’ve been a lot of unsettling moments, this being one of them—without then just plunging into, “Well, you know, you should go look on the New York City crime stats. And look at the comparison between 1992 and 2008 and 2014 and 2022,” which I think is useful too, but not as a lead.
EV: Not that you were doing that exactly. But I find it settling to remind ourselves that we are still in an unsettling time. I think there’s a little bit of a tendency, you know, despite the conversation that we had with Zeke [Emanuel] and Nicholas Christakis, where they were making the point that the pandemic is not done with us, we do feel a little bit done with the pandemic because we’re out of the acute phase. And so it’s kind of easy to forget, like, we need to reset our expectation. We’re still in this unsettling time. So start from there.
ZK: And for those of you who wonder about the birds in the background I think Emma is in a very active nature environment, which means that the world is in fact going on as it always has, irrespective of whether or not human beings are doing well or doing badly or thriving or suffering, which in its own way should be some degree of comfort that there’s a world of nature and life out there that is not a hundred percent dependent on our inputs or outputs.
But absolutely. We should not be so quick to forget our own recent past. And this is not just an American issue. This is a human issue of wanting things to kind of be neatly tidily wrapped in a bow. And I feel like there should be a genuflection. There should be a settling, as you put it, in an unsettled time that respects what a strange couple of years this has been on the planet, in a way that is not typical. I mean, yes, there have been pandemics and there has been lots of death and lots of disease, and it’s been much worse in the past than it is in the present. But there’s never been a period of time where everybody on the planet simultaneously experienced the same crisis and reacted to it with intense public measures to try to control it. I mean, that is a unique moment in our collective history. And we should probably remember that as we grapple with our present.
EV: Mm-hmm. Respect that. Absolutely.
ZK: Thank you again, Emma, for the conversations. Thank you all for listening. Sign up for our newsletter, What Could Go Right? It’s free and weekly and it’s kind of a daily dose, or a weekly dose in this case, of perspectives on the world that can get lost in the cacophony of fear and doomscrolling. So check that out as well. And thanks for listening.
EV: Thank you.
Meet the Hosts