Social Justice: Can courts do more than process and punish?

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What might have been a depressing morning observing the arraignment Court in Newark New Jersey was anything but. Yes there was a parade parade of poor, ill educated and often mentally ill black and latino defendants, sometimes appearing in person, sometimes via video link from the county jail. Yes the offences for which they were charged, were petty and sometimes as in the case of “wandering” – a kind of trespass – questionable.

In fact what could simply have been a conveyor belt of meaningless processing was, in the hands of Judge Victoria Pratt, turned into an opportunity for defendants to make positive changes to their lives. Thanks to the New York based Centre for Court Innovation, Judge Pratt was able to send cases to a range of assessment, treatment and community service options provided by Newark Community Solutions,  established to help develop a more problem solving approach to people in conflict with the law.

A highly efficient “Resource Coordinator” reported to the judge on progress made by people already referred to the project. Most were fully compliant with their programmes, attending orientation or treatment readiness groups, doing unpaid work or writing a short essay.

Judge Pratt asked defendants directly about their experiences- what kind of animal had they envisaged themselves to be in the introductory group-work role-pplay and why – one thought of himself as a bird flying free, another pit bull dog protecting people. The Judge asked a why an appointment had been missed – a girlfriend had been shot and he had taken her to hospital, an explanation verified by the hospital record.  Yet another was late because he had trouble getting through the metal detector at the court because of all of his jewellery.  “Why did you come like that?”quipped the judge- “were you going on a date? Just bring yourself next time” she admonished firmly. When defendants read their essays or completed their programme the judge led the court in a round of applause.

Failures are  taken seriously too. A young man who had impressed the judge with his essay was none the less given additional days for missing an appointment.

The court ordered programmes are short – a number of days rather than weeks-and in themselves unlikely to turn round their clients deep seated problems. But upstairs a team of social workers use the time to link their clients into the longer term interventions – residential drug treatment, mental health or job finding- which can make a real difference. The authority of the court is important at the outset but longer term engagement is a matter for the individuals themselves. Those that complete the court ordered component will often receive a helping hand in the form of the annulment of outstanding fines – which otherwise make a fresh start an even more difficult proposition.

Some argue that the kind of problem solving approaches applied at Newark are a sticking plaster that lend spurious legitimacy to a  system that is fundamentally unjust in its treatment of the crimes of poverty and that much more radical reform is needed. Others argue that the impact on the use of imprisonment by initiatives like this is minimal.

It is true that Newark Community Solutions is limited to low level offences and that a problem solving approach for more serious cases or more persistent offenders remains untested – thanks largely to the overwhelming demand for  punishment which though a little milder in recent years, still shapes the response of courts in the US and many other places of the world.

But almost all of the people appearing before Judge Pratt were grateful to her and to the social workers for the chance they had been given. At the very least there is here a prototype of a more rational and humane system of criminal justice.




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