Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tales from the Green Monster

Last Friday, Newark came to Manhattan in the form of a staff meeting featuring Jethro Antoine and Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  Together, Jethro and Judge Pratt offered a ground-level view of life at the "Green Monster," as the municipal courthouse on Green Street in Newark is sometimes known.

If the conversation had a theme, I think it would have been "small things can make a big difference."  Like many of our projects, Newark Community Solutions is attempting to reengineer how the justice system responds to minor crime.  For us, this means reducing the number of defendants who go to jail or receive fines and increasing the use of alternative sanctions such as community restitution and social services.  And it means making great efforts to promote compliance so that defendants aren't set up to fail.

One of the ancillary benefits of our approach is that, if all goes well, it should reduce the number of individuals who receive warrants.   Warrants are more than a nuisance.  For many, they are essentially a walking jail term -- at any given moment, on any given day, they are susceptible to being picked up by police and dragged into jail, even if they are guilty of no misbehavior at present.  And, in many cases, the outstanding warrants are decades old or involve small, unpaid fines.  No matter how ancient or minor, the presence of outstanding warrants on a individual's record can have a massive impact on his or her behavior and life prospects.

In addition to reducing the use of fines, Newark Community Solutions also seeks to decrease the issuance of warrants through a focus on procedural justice.  Judge Pratt is one of the leading practitioners of procedural justice that I have ever had the privilege of observing.   She is particularly adept at using plain language in the courtroom to ensure defendant comprehension.

Judge Pratt gave a nice example of this on Friday, talking about how when she started on the bench she used to ask defendants about their use of "psychotropic medication" -- and received nothing but blank looks and demurrals in return.  When she instead started to ask defendants about whether they took anything to "clear their minds," the conversations became much richer and more productive.

It may seem like a small thing but, according to Judge Pratt, tweaking her language in the courtroom has helped to reduce the stacks of bench warrants on her desk.  And that can add up to big change indeed in the lives of hundreds of defendants each year.