As the Black and Latina daughter of a working-class family, Judge Victoria Pratt learned to treat everyone with dignity, at a very early age. Now, she’s hoping to do the same for others through her new book, The Power of Dignity. In her book, with a foreword from Senator Cory Booker, Judge Pratt shows how we can transform courtrooms, neighborhoods, and our nation to support the vulnerable and heal community rifts.
“There are so many things that we need to be addressing before we call in law enforcement and send people to court to be punished,” says Judge Pratt. Whether she’s addressing inequities faced by the poor, mentally ill, or minority groups, Judge Pratt’s goal is always to create a space for listening, understanding, and healing. And she hopes her book can encourage others to do the same.
Your book, The Power of Dignity, is about to be released. What does it feel like knowing your labor of love will soon be available to the public?
It feels amazing to know I’ll get to share my insights with the world. One day, I was sitting in the courtroom and decided I was going to deal with one case, one life at a time, and shift it. I didn’t understand at the time, the impact it would ultimately have on that person, on the people sitting in court, the folks working in the courtroom, and the entire court system in Newark, and eventually, the entire criminal justice system.
What main themes or practices do you hope people will take away from the book?
One of the themes is the idea of human-centered justice. The idea that putting dignity and respect at the center of our approach to the justice system has a transformational impact. The idea is that it [the justice system] can ensure fairness and the effectiveness of the true delivery of justice. Things as simple as seeing and hearing people, as you engage inside and outside of the justice system are imperative as well as understanding how poverty, mental illness, and race drive people into our justice system. But I also believe this is a hopeful book because I talk about the things that everyone can do to reverse the effects. It’s a book that gives people strategies and techniques and shows how just turning the knob slightly can reverse the effects of our broken criminal justice system.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were called to write this book – do you see yourself being called to write another?
This book felt like giving birth especially since I was writing it soon after having given birth. The funny thing is that I wrote a book and I thought I had said everything I could say, but as soon as I wrote the last line, and it went to print, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I should’ve talked a little more about this, I should’ve talked a little more about that.’ It’s amazing that I still have a lot to talk about concerning the criminal justice system.
What does the Power of Dignity mean to you?
It’s about putting dignity and respect of individuals at the center of what we do. It’s about seeing their humanity and not just the incident that brings them before us, especially for low-level offenders. We have spent too much time writing off human beings because of behavior that we think makes them unsalvageable without understanding how laws come into effect. Someone decides that certain behavior is unlawful and sometimes that because they think somebody is annoying. For example, someone drives by a homeless person asleep on a bench. Bothered by that, they have the power to make that behavior unlawful. The reality is that’s a social issue that needs to be dealt with, with a different approach, which is solving why the person is sleeping on the park bench. The power of dignity starts way before you even end up before a judge. It’s about finding ways to address issues while maintaining people’s dignity and treating them respectfully.
How can dignity, treating others with respect, and understanding transform lives?
It transforms lives by getting to the root of the issue and not superficially satisfying our need for punishment. I remember a case where an 18-year-old stood on top of a police cruiser and took a picture of it to post on the internet. While he was doing it, he was being egged on by his classmates. It’s a juvenile prank, but he was arrested and charged with being a disorderly person. His case was dismissed, but now we have to get that arrest expunged from his record, as well as that disorderly person’s offense expunged from his record. And this is a young man who had a college scholarship and who could have potentially lost it because of a prank.
There’s a cycle of injustice that continues to happen but asking people to take a break and to really look at the humanity that you’re dealing with. There’s a human being that is going to have significant consequences as a result of what your next approach is. So we have to think, ‘do I really want to process this person for this behavior?’
What changes do you hope the justice system will undergo in 5, 10, or 15 years from now?
I hope people will ask questions beyond the one moment that’s captured in the complaint. Along with recognizing the other factors that may be unseen. I want this criminal justice system to take a more humane approach to incidents that happen in communities. I want communities to also be more involved in these processes so we can create spaces where the community can use restorative practices. I want us to return to this space where people are involved. For example, if you see someone who’s hungry, they shouldn’t have to steal. If you’re able, buy someone a meal so they’re not stealing a $5 candy bar from a convenience store that’s going to get them arrested.
Perhaps we create resources in communities so that people can eat or get connected to services. I’m hoping that the criminal justice system begins to take a more human-centered approach to justice by looking at the actual causes of why someone may be arrested. This goes for the practitioners who I also want to understand their role with institutional authority, which is using their power and authority to create change and become a part of these communities they serve so they can hold the police accountable, hold prosecutors accountable, and hold probation officers accountable.
Healing our communities takes time. What would you say to other judges, lawyers, police officers, etc. looking to make the legal system better for everyone?
I would say for them to go into communities, know their makeup, and ask their members what justice should look like. I would say for them to know what’s plaguing the community and to know what resources are available for members. Speak at schools, go to community meetings, and be helpful when people have problems. And remember, situations don’t always require law enforcement involvement.
The Power of Dignity, out now, can be purchased on Amazon, here.