When Mexico, Kenya and Great Britain set out to improve their criminal justice systems in recent years, the place they decided they most wanted to emulate was Newark.
That’s right; Newark, with its drugs and gangs and violence, its deteriorating buildings contrasting with its shiny new condos, and its lingering memories of the riots of 1967. Newark is where, despite long odds, a judge who presided from 2009 until 2017 at the municipal courthouse at 31 Green Street sent rumors rumbling internationally that a better way of dispensing justice was being put to the test.
Locals knew Judge Victoria F. Pratt by reputation before international admirers caught on. “Everybody knows her here, and everybody says the same thing: Judge Pratt don’t play,” says Trevor Powell, a 27-year-old Newark native who stood before Pratt in 2014 on a drug charge.
Pratt’s steely but compassionate approach to sentencing is still in practice at 31 Green Street. And it is still attracting court officials from around the world who want to see for themselves what a radical concept respect can be.
“Judge Pratt taught everyone that individuals, if given a second chance, will seize the opportunity to do better,” says Vivian Sanks King, who acted as second judge while Pratt was chief judge in the courtroom known in Newark as Part Two. Pratt later stepped down to teach her methods in places as farflung as Ukraine and Dubai. In addition to favoring community service over short jail stints for low-level offenders like Powell, Pratt often assigned her defendants to write essays. Powell’s essay, in 2015, explored how good and bad choices affected his life.
“At the time she told me to write it, I wasn’t happy about it, because I felt it was going to take time away from what I was doing then, which was drugs,” says Powell, who now works in social services and is considering a career as a police officer. “But then I started writing it… It took me back to where I was before I jumped off track.” By the time Powell read the essay to Pratt in her courtroom, he says, “it made me think, Damn. What is wrong with me?”
Pratt is hardly a commanding presence. Everything about her, from her voice to the way she wears her hair, suggests softness. She laughs easily and often and is a master of good manners, careful not to interrupt when someone else is speaking. She organizes her thoughts before speaking and shares them with clear intent.
She was born in Newark in the 1970s to an African-American father who was a garbage man and a Dominican mother who was a beautician. She spent childhood weekends at her mother’s salon, taking rollers out of customers’ hair and dashing around the corner to buy perm solution from the local beauty supply.
But Pratt had a fierce determination for self-improvement. After graduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1994, she applied to law school. When she was rejected, she spent a year teaching dance to children in a Hispanic community center in Newark, as well as English as a second language to women entering the work force after welfare. In 1995, she gained admission to Rutgers School of Law in Newark. A few years after earning her JD degree in 1998, she went to work for then governor Jim McGreevey as an assistant counselor. Even in her 20s, “she was bright and driven and a leader,” says McGreevey. “She brought that same focus and passion to reshaping the judiciary system.”
“I made a deal with myself as a judge: If I was going to give someone a jail sentence, I needed to look that person in the eye when I did it.”
By 2005, Pratt’s sense of justice was making itself known around New Jersey. After working for McGreevey, she took a job as the Camden School District’s compliance officer. There, she uncovered a scheme that so inflamed her, she had to return to Newark for safety.
“I found that people in the school district were stealing field trip money from poor children and stealing from the district,” she says. “These were children who don’t often go on field trips because their parents can’t afford it. A lot of people lost their jobs, and a principal went to jail. I fought back so hard that people were like, ‘You need to go back home before something happens.’”
There was corruption in Newark, too. But home was a more familiar setting for squaring off with those intent on targeting the vulnerable.
“My parents both had about an eighth-grade education, and my mother had a strong Spanish accent,” she says. “People would try to take advantage of their limitations, and I was like this little dragon who defended them. I would be like, ‘No, you’re not going to take advantage of my mom because she said ‘50’ and it sounded like ‘15’ to you,” she says. At her mother Elsa’s shop, “I was the parent sometimes.”
If the role of dragon defender was ingrained early, the role of ally to the disenfranchised came later. In 2006, Pratt was working as a lawyer at the Newark Municipal Council. Then-mayor Cory Booker, had the Community Justice Center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on his radar. Her boss, Mildred Crump told her to review the court system there.
In 2000, the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation had set up a program in Red Hook to try to turn what was widely known as a rough community into a stable one. Its judge, Alex Calabrese, handled everything except the most serious crimes. Instead of jail, Calabrese, who is still presiding, gave most defendants sanctions like community service and anger-management classes meant to stop the revolving door of 30-day-and-under jail sentences. Calabrese also assigned essays and, as Pratt would later, made a habit of congratulating defendants—“clients,” as he and Pratt call them—for small victories, like passing a drug test or applying to get a professional license. What impressed Pratt most: “Judge Calabrese asked defendants what they thought was best for them,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it.”
In 2007, Booker appointed Pratt to the municipal court bench. She spent seven months in traffic court before moving to Part Two. The Center for Court Innovation had already been working on setting up a community court in Newark under an agency it called Newark Community Solutions. But the services it provided in Red Hook, like drug counseling and therapy, weren’t in place in Newark when Pratt started presiding. Still, she made the court her star vehicle.
Greg Berman, Court Innovation’s director, saw it coming. “Around the time we started in Newark, we had already been hearing about this charismatic official,” says Berman. “She has this winning combination where you get a clear sense of her intellectual curiosity as well as her very real appreciation for life on the street. She maintains the dignity of the court with a very human touch.”
By 2015, an average of 70 percent of Part Two’s approximately 1,200 defendants per year—generally charged with nonviolent offenses like drug possession, prostitution and shoplifting—were completing their mandates and avoiding jail, thanks to Pratt’s sentences. A typical sentence would be two days of community service combined with a three-day counseling program to target a problem like prostitution or drug abuse, plus a one-page essay. Berman calls the 70 percent level of compliance “extremely high.” So high, in fact, that by the time Pratt left Part Two, Berman was sending hundreds of officials interested in overhauling their courts to Newark to watch and learn.
Pratt says a voice in her head prompted her to leave Part Two. “It was saying, ‘Do more, do more.’” One recent endeavor: A trip to Dubai, for a conference on “court excellence.” She was invited after the organizer had seen her 2016 TED Talk, “How Judges Can Show Respect.” The talk has been translated into 11 languages.
Doing more outside of New Jersey, where she lives in a suburb near Newark with her husband and Elsa, who is suffering from dementia, doesn’t mean Pratt will never return to Newark Community Solutions.
“I miss working directly with the people who came before me to help them see their gifts and potential,” she says. She remembers prostitutes abused by their stepfathers and addicted parents led astray by the idleness of unemployment. She remembers virtually everybody who stood before her, she says—some because they are familiar to most Newark judges (one woman she saw had 101 prior arrests), and some simply because she stopped to look them in the eyes.
“To me, looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect. I made a deal with myself as a judge: If I was going to give someone a jail sentence, I needed to look that person in the eye when I did it,” she says. “If you do something adverse to someone and you don’t look them in the eye, they might think, ‘she knows she did me dirty.’”
Pratt says few judges act that way. After a recent trip to Ukraine, a judge had reported they don’t often think to ask a defendant how he’s doing, or to look that person in the eye. “They said, ‘I’m so busy thinking about how I’m going to rule, or how I’m going to communicate what I’m ruling, that it doesn’t occur to me,’” she says.
Though it can be reduced to a single word more often associated with the late Aretha Franklin, Pratt’s respectful approach to criminal justice carries a fearsome strength.
“I laugh about ‘Judge Pratt don’t play,’” Pratt says. Then the laugh gives way to a favorite story. “One day this guy gets on the bus in Newark and he says, ‘I ain’t got no money. I ain’t paying,’” she says. “And someone else on the bus says, ‘Oh, man. Don’t do that. If you don’t pay, the driver’s going to push a button, and a light’s going to go off on the top of the bus, and the police are going to come and take you down to Old Judge Pratt, and she don’t give nothing less than eight days.’ Then all the passengers reached into their pockets and paid his bus fare,” she saysClick here to leave a comment