Municipal court in the United States works like this: the accused stands with his or her attorney in front of the bench, looking up at the judge on high. Judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney speak in jargon that ordinary people do not understand; the accused is invisible. The judge may wish the accused good morning when first brought in, but he or she will not be addressed again until the end, when the judge announces the decision and what happens next. “Do you understand?” “Yes,” the accused says, although probably most likely not. “Do you agree?” “Yes.”

In the courtroom known as Part Two, on the second floor of the Newark Municipal Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, things are done differently. Victoria F. Pratt, chief judge of the court who presides over Part Two, is  a pioneer of “procedural justice,” an idea that has become central to the debate about reforming the U.S. criminal justice system: that people are far more likely to obey the law if the justice system does not humiliate them, but treats them fairly and with respect. That begins with the way judges speak to defendants.

Pratt LC’94, NLAW’98 grew up in the suburbs of Newark, the daughter of an African-American father and a mother who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. Not long after graduating from Livingston College at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Pratt enrolled at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, today known as Rutgers Law School. Upon graduation, she worked in various state offices and as counsel to the president of the Newark Municipal Council, Mildred C. Crump SPAA’09, providing legal advice, researching legislation, and analyzing budgets.

Her life changed when Crump gave her a report about the Community Justice Center in Red Hook, a notoriously tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, rife with drug abuse and crime. In 2000, the nonprofit organization Center for Court Innovation had established a community court in Red Hook, led by a judge named Alex Calabrese, that handled civil, housing, and criminal cases—everything except the most serious crimes. Instead of jail, most defendants got rapid sanctions aimed at breaking the cycle of people going in and out of jail: community service, social services such as anger management and conflict  resolution, or longer-term drug treatment.

Judge Calabrese was using what have become the four principles of procedural justice, first formulated by a social psychologist named Tom R. Tyler in 1990: first, that people who come before a judge trust that the process is impartial; second, that they are treated with respect; third, that they understand what is going on and what they are expected  to do; fourth, that they have a voice. Defendants find the procedure fairer when they are allowed to state their views. Even though no one likes to lose a court case, people accept court decisions more willingly if they believe the court procedures were fair.

Procedual justice callout

In other words, offenders are more likely to do what the authorities tell them and refrain from committing further crimes if they feel that they are treated with respect and fairness, regardless of the judge’s ruling. “This discovery has been called ‘counterintuitive’ and even ‘wrongheaded,’” stated a 2007 paper published by the American Judges Association, “but researcher after researcher has demonstrated that this phenomenon exists.”

Police abuses and judicial inequity are not new. What is new is mainstream awareness of the system’s deficiencies. White America now knows what black America already knew: the crime-control strategies of the last few decades have degenerated in many cities into deterrence based on fear and intimidation. There are mass arrests of young men of color for simply hanging around; courts that harass the poor and hand down long and racially discriminatory  sentences for relatively minor offenses; and prisons that  are seemingly designed to break and alienate inmates. Although most victims of violent crime are themselves poor people of color, many people in these communities have come to see the criminal justice system as an oppressor, not a protector. And that has an enormous cost.

Procedural justice, research has revealed, can repair relationships between the criminal justice system and the community—and reduce crime. Following the violent confrontation in 2014 between police and residents of Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama administration established a task force on 21st-century policing. First on the list of final recommendations, issued in May 2015, was this: “Law enforcement agencies should adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for internal and external policies and practices.”

President Obama echoed similar sentiments last November when he spoke at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University–Newark, arguing for, among other measures, the reduction in sentences for nonviolent offenders. It’s a cause championed at Rutgers Law School, where the effort of faculty and students dovetails with the president’s emphasis on overhauling harsh sentencing laws, particularly those for nonviolent offenders. “We are at the forefront of juvenile justice reform in the state,” says Laura Cohen RC’83, a clinical professor at the school and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic. “The law school has made a very real and lasting commitment to systematic reform.”

“Long Time Here: Prisons and Policing in African-American History” was the title for this year’s Marion Thompson Wright lecture, presented, in part, by the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers–Newark. Now in its 36th year, the February event featured local activists from across the nation who also addressed the issue of criminal justice and the need for dramatic change.

Pratt visited Red Hook in 2007 to begin a process to adapt its court model for Newark. In November 2009, Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, appointed Pratt to the Municipal Court bench, and several months later, she was assigned to Part Two, for which Newark had an ambitious plan. Newark was going to create its own version of Red Hook, and she was to become the city’s Alex Calabrese.

Court Innovation, the nonprofit that helped establish the Red Hook court, had been working for several years to set up Newark Community Solutions, the agency that would provide alternatives to jail—known as “mandates”—similar to those in Red Hook: psychological screening, counseling, therapy groups, and so on. But when Pratt moved into Part Two in May 2010, none of these alternatives were in place, so she turned to procedural justice, talking to defendants the way Calabrese did. In bringing her humanity to bear during her encounters with defendants instead of issuing stern admonishments, Pratt discovered something about herself: “I thought, ‘I could do this all day.’”

Now she does. In court, Pratt’s demeanor is that of a no-nonsense mother who happens to host a high-speed talk show. She switches back and forth between English and Spanish. She comments on a new hair color or asks about family members. “This court is going to treat you with dignity and respect, and we expect you to treat us the same way,” she tells defendants. “If you show up late or don’t show up at all, you will serve a jail sentence.”

Pratt applauds at every possible opportunity. If someone completes a mandate, clears a debt, sends off a school application, or just pays for a bus ride instead of jumping the turnstile, she gets everyone in the room to clap. One man recently received four rounds of applause. One of Pratt’s favorite moves is to assign essays, an idea she picked up from Calabrese in Red Hook. Pratt asks the writers to read them out loud; their preparation for this oral exercise, she says, makes them think about their future. 

Court Innovation has begun the first formal evaluation of Part Two, but Kelly Mulligan-Brown, who now heads Newark Community Solutions, says that on average 70 percent of defendants complete their mandates and avoid jail—a very high degree of compliance with court orders. Another important marker is the drastic reduction in arrest warrants that the judge issues for no-shows. Pratt says that in traditional court, she would sometimes have to issue dozens of warrants each day; now she’s down to three or four. Hundreds of judicial officials and politicians from all over the world have visited Red Hook—and they are starting to come to Pratt’s court in Newark.

Procedural justice is a reform that costs virtually nothing and is something every judge in every courtroom can do right now, Pratt believes. Yet it’s not widespread. Tyler, the innovator of the idea, speaks to groups of judges around the country. “I hear a lot of, ‘It’s not my job,’” he says. Judges and lawyers are trained to value outcome, not process. Pratt faced similar obstacles in Newark: judges were skeptical. “I heard a lot of, ‘You’re supposed to be a judge, not a social worker,’” she says. But Pratt maintains that something has to stop the cycle of life sentences served in 30-day installments.  

In any other court, Terrence Cawley (a pseu­donym to conceal his identity), for instance, would have gotten 30 days in jail for buying marijuana. Not in Part Two.

“Good morning, Mr. Cawley,” Pratt says. “What’s going on with you today?”

Cawley is an African-American man in his 20s. Like most defendants, he’s wearing sweatpants, jacket, and sneakers. He has an earring and a chinstrap beard. Eleven days before, Cawley was sentenced to 30 days in jail. But as with almost every case in this court, the sentence was suspended pending completion of his mandate, a standard mix of two days  of community service and four days of counseling and support groups. If he completes the requirements, no  jail time. And as she does in many cases, Pratt has given Cawley an extra assignment: he had to write an essay on the theme: “Where do I see myself in five years?”

Now Cawley is back, clutching his paper, to read his essay to the court.

“Where do I see myself in five years?” He pauses. “I will be part of a rap group, but I also have a talent for  cutting hair. I aspire to be a well-known and successful  artist. I can also see myself opening my own barbershop. Education could play a major role, to learn the ins and outs of the music and barber industries. Music is more than beats. I do see positivity and success.” 

Pratt looks impressed. “What’s the name of your rap group, Mr. Cawley?”

“Mula,” he says. 

“Mula?”

“Like money. Moolah,” he explains.

She quizzes him. How many are in the group? Where do you perform? What’s your rap name? Do you have a video?

“We have one of a song called ‘Cha-ching,’” he says.

“Is that something I can  listen to?”

He shakes his head, smiling. “You might not want to listen to it, judge,” he says.

“Well, I didn’t know I had an artist in the courtroom,”  she says. “Mr. Cawley, you think and write like a college student.  There is every reason you should be in school, so sign up.”

She turns to Janet Idrogo NCAS’10, the resource coordinator from Newark Community Solutions. “How did he do?” Pratt asks.

“Completed,” Idrogo announces.

Pratt applauds. The court staff claps with her, along with a few of the waiting  defendants.

“So Mr. Cawley, what did you learn about yourself?”

“I need to cut the nonsense.”

“That’s right,” says the judge. “Good-bye and good luck.”

 “Thank you, your honor,” he calls out, waving a hand above his head. And he’s out the door. •