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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.

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Punishing the Symptoms

When the judicial system sticks to the same old script, it misses the chance to resolve the real issues causing crime.

In the excerpt below from The Progress Network Member Victoria Pratt’s book The Power of Dignity, she gives an example of the alternative methods she invoked during her time as chief judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, where she transformed the courtroom into a place that could punish, but also heal.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm | Unsplash

I recall one case in particular that required creative problem-solving, when Anthony Aziz entered my courtroom. Looking up from reviewing his file, I saw a defiant smirk that seemed permanently installed on his young face. With his head tilted to the side and his frame swimming in his oversized shirt, he just looked silly. “Lord, give me strength,” I couldn’t help but murmur. 

This young man was going to try my patience. He had a marijuana possession charge and refused to show up on time for his court-ordered mandates. It was as if he was daring me to send him to the county jail. Once there, he would earn his stripes. Getting sent to jail was often a rite of passage that earned a young person street cred and respect from their friends. I wouldn’t give it to him.

Months earlier, I had discontinued the use of the essay topic “Where Do I See Myself When I Turn Twenty-Five Years Old?” Inevitably, young men wrote that they didn’t expect to see twenty-one, much less twenty-five. The despair and fatalism that poured out of these defendants was too much for me to bear. But I could tell that even a different essay prompt wouldn’t get Mr. Aziz where he needed to be. Assigning an essay wasn’t going to work with him, and jail was not an option. How would I reach him?

I decided to talk to him about his potential. When I mentioned college, he interrupted with a loud laugh, and his whole body swayed. “College? Come on, Judge. Don’t no Black men from Newark go to college.” He looked at me as if I had just landed from another planet.

College? Come on, Judge. Don’t no Black men from Newark go to college.

“What?! Newark is full of Black men who went to college. And I went to college with a bunch of them,” I countered.

Contrite, he responded, “I ain’t never seen any.”

And there was the problem. He couldn’t become that which he had never seen.

I called a court recess, went into my chambers, and contacted Keith Hamilton, one of those Black men from Newark who’d gone to college with me. He was working next door in city hall as a legislative aide for then councilman (and future mayor) Ras Baraka. I explained what had transpired and told him that I needed him to take Mr. Aziz into his office as an intern. He needed to be surrounded by educated Black men. He needed to see them, hear them, speak to them, and be immersed in their way of thinking.

I returned to court and advised the young man of the arrangement. He would work with Mr. Hamilton, whose office would provide me with a report. Mr. Aziz couldn’t say it in court, but once the internship was offered, it was clear that he longed for mentorship. During the assignment, he learned about civics, heard about people’s concerns in community meetings, and passed along to city staff constituents’ reports about potholes and downed trees so the issues could be addressed. He had an opportunity to observe and emulate streetwise college-educated men and not just gangsters. He completed the program and never returned to court. Throughout the years I enlisted many community folks to serve as mentors, such as attorney Anton Lendor, boxing coach Derrick Graham, and Gary Paul Wright of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, to name a few. I assigned many young men mentors through these internships.

Instead of creating a plan for Mr. Aziz within the typical confines of the judicial system, I had innovated. I reexamined the initial goal of punishment to force compliance. To shift his behavior, I decided it was more important to meet his needs. I used my judicial authority to direct his actions and engage others in his change process. I reframed the problem. Yes, he was smoking marijuana, which was illegal at the time, and he was headed down the wrong path. However, the real problem was that he didn’t think he had any other options for his life. Our justice system has to correctly diagnose the problem to cure the condition that brings someone to the courtroom. We cannot solely focus on and punish people for the symptoms. Resolve the real issue and the symptoms disappear.


Excerpted from The Power of Dignity: How Transforming Justice Can Heal our Community by Judge Victoria Pratt. Copyright © 2022. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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Victoria Pratt

Judge Victoria Pratt is a renowned national and international advocate for reforming the criminal justice system. She is currently a Professor of Professional Practice and the Director of Strategic Planning and Program Development at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice in Newark, NJ.