Known as the judge of second chances, Judge Victoria Pratt has based her career on treating people with respect and dignity – two things that can often be lacking in the criminal justice system. As Chief Judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, she spent years thinking about how justice could be delivered to defendants and how to build trust in the justice system. The Black and Latina daughter of a working-class family, Judge Pratt has made it her mission to transform how we treat our criminals.
Using creative methods such as essays, she gave defendants the opportunity to tell their stories so that the court could make a decision based on facts instead of perception. She hopes her book, which comes out in May of this year, will provide judges and other members of the legal system, the opportunity to follow suit. We had the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss why she decided to pursue a career in law, what it has been like teaching, what can be done to create more spaces for women of color, and what’s next for her on the docket.
What made you decide to pursue a career in the law?
I wanted to change the world. I’m the daughter of an African American garbageman born in Harlem who spent his summers in the segregated south experiencing the brutality and inequities of Jim Crow. So, my perspective of race is framed by his experiences. My mother is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who spoke very little English and always struggled with the language. I remember they were tricked into a predatory mortgage and my mother worked herself into illness trying to maintain it.
I saw how unfair and unjust people were treated based on their color, what others thought about their immigrant status, and lack of education. I also saw what happened to people who could not negotiate systems or understand systems. I got to experience injustice, and I thought if I go to law school, I could change the world.
While strides have been made, there aren’t that many female judges who are also people of color. How did your upbringing help you navigate the lack of representation in the judicial system?
My upbringing taught me to stay focused on the goal. I met my first black, female judge when I was in elementary school when she came to speak to our class. I was amazed. I then clerked for the Honorable Betty J. Lester, the first Black female judge in Essex County’s Superior Court. I think clerking for a black judge really cemented this idea that there would be a space for me.
When I graduated from law school, I was the first African American associate at a law firm. This was ridiculous to me because it wasn’t the 70s, it was the 2000s. In all of their years of existence, this firm hadn’t opened its doors to African American associates?
What can be done to create more spaces for women of color who want to be judges?
Mentorship is key. Aspiring black judges also need sponsors. They need people who can share the details of the process and what happens behind the process to become a judge. If it’s an election state, women of color have to become involved in the political process by building a base and doing community work. However, equally, as important, women of color must be given access to party lines and financing for successful campaigns. We can’t always be an afterthought after we work to get out the vote and save elections.
We also have to let people know what we want. Women have a real bad habit of performing or over-performing and just waiting for someone to notice us. You have to be very deliberate about your career steps.
That means going into places and saying, ‘This is what I’d like to do. What are the steps?’ One of the things I hated the most was asking. I used to bang my chest, and say, ‘I don’t ask for anything.’ It was a silly thing to believe because that means that somebody who’s holding on to this role doesn’t get to give it to you. I’ve been in spaces, even as a judge with men who are unqualified, and they walk into the place and say, ‘Yeah, this is the job I want.’ Nothing about that person tells me they can do that job other than it coming from their mouth. I need women, particularly women of color, to tell people what they want.
We’re often taught we should treat people the way they want to be treated. How can this rule be better practiced in the courtroom?
In my courtroom, and in my practice, this is called procedural justice. It’s a concept that says if people are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness by the justice system, it increases trust in the justice system and its processes. It also reduces crime because it increases compliance with the law, and people are more likely to follow the judge’s orders if they see the judge as a legitimate authority to impose rules and regulations. Its principles are that people have a right to have a voice in the process. The process should also be neutral so that people feel that there’s no bias. People should also understand the process, what’s expected of them, and what they should do as a result of these things. And lastly, people have to be treated with respect.
We assume that people naturally know how to do this. The problem is that so much of what we’re taught about how you should engage people in the justice system is wrong. In this country, people are innocent until proven guilty, however, our approach is to treat them as if they’re guilty unless they are proven innocent. How can we treat people respectfully when we are violating their fundamental rights?
I read that you would assign essays to defendants and I thought it was such a unique approach because a courtroom is sentencing this person without knowing anything about them.
They don’t know anything about them or how they got to your courtroom. People live in these communities under constant threat of violence. They live with people who are suffering, and sometimes I don’t even see how people get up in the face of the things that I know they’re experiencing based on this need for love.
I know your book comes out in May. What made you decide to write one? What do you want it to accomplish?
I didn’t decide—I was called to write this book. I want this book to increase procedural justice. I want people to have a voice and know that you can do all of these things and it’s not going to take up more time. I hope that this book will bring us closer to justice, that it will also stop this conveyor belt of injustice, and that people begin to look at how people ended up in the justice system. My hope is that this book promotes a more human-centered justice.
You’re teaching at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice now. How has it been going from the courtroom to the classroom?
For me, it’s pretty much the same approach. I want them to see the world larger than the textbook. They have a textbook which they read from but then we talk about things outside of the textbook and outside of typical criminal justice practices. Typically, you’ll find many departments might be focused on law enforcement, but I want them to think about what else they can contribute when they show up.
If you’re going to write policy about criminal justice, I need you to be thinking about Miss Betty in New York who’s been holding down the tax base for 40 years. When you write policy, how does that impact this other person? When you engage with a person in the community, you must think maybe I’m dealing with someone who has a mental health issue, or maybe this behavior doesn’t mean that.
You have your book coming out, you’re teaching now…what’s next for you on the docket?
Getting my message in the world and implemented in the world. The message is important, and it’s beyond criminal justice. It’s the medical field, it’s engineering schools, it’s universities. It’s how we deal with our relationships with people. How do we treat them? How do people feel they’re being treated? How do you treat people fairly? I’m on a mission to implement that.