Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Hey, it's Marie Forleo, and you are watching MarieTV. The place to be to create a business and life you love. If you've ever taken a look at our criminal justice system and thought to yourself, "There must be a better way," this episode is a must watch. Judge Victoria Pratt has gained international acclaim for her commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. While presiding over Newark Community Solutions, she offers defendants in minor criminal cases a chance to avoid jail by obeying specific rules of behavior, including: community service, counseling and introspective essays. A nationally recognized expert in procedural justice and alternative sentencing, Judge Pratt has appeared on MSNBC, PBS and NPR among others. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey and New York, and is admitted to the US Supreme Court. Judge Pratt thank you so much for making the time for being here. As I was telling you off camera, when I saw a clip of your talk, I was like "Who is this brilliant woman? We need to have her on the show. We need to have this conversation." So thank you for making the time. Thank you so much for having me on. You know, the judge doesn't usually get invited to parties, so. Before we talk about your incredible work with criminal justice reform, I wanna back. We're both from Jersey. You grew up in the suburb of Newark, the daughter of a Dominican beautician and an African American garbage man. So as young as nine, you found yourself helping your parents and their friends navigate government systems, like the DMV. Talk to us about how that experience laid the groundwork for your future. So when you're the English speaking child, first generation of a Spanish or a foreign speaking language person, you become that person, right, even as a child, that is responsible for helping people fill out forms, getting information to the government, and understanding and navigating systems. And so at that age, you end up having to learn very quickly, usually as you show up to the place. And so it began to teach me, one, my responsibility to others, who really couldn't navigate systems, but how complicated systems were, and they didn't need to be. And how we could actually expect ... how could you expect a citizen ... just because they don't speak the language, doesn't mean that they're not entitled to the full rights of citizenship ... to use these systems. And so it became very frustrating to me. It would be very easy just to have an English and Spanish speaking sign, if that's the population that you serve. They're both tax paying citizens. And also, how employees treated people when they came to these places, that they were required to come to. So that really began to lay the groundwork for me, insisting that people understood things and kind of making – breaking complex theories and situations into very tangible, understandable situations as well. So there's a lot of folks in our audience, who have big dreams, big dreams of what they wanna do with their careers, what they wanna do with their education, what they might wanna do with their businesses and their families. And those dreams always don't come to fruition first time out the gate. I know after undergraduate, you had a dream to go to law school. But that didn't quite work out the first time. Tell us about that, and also why law? So I've always wanted to change the world. I never believed that I couldn't. I mean there were things that would come up. I'm like, "Oh, okay. I'm just gonna figure out how I'm gonna change the world." But I knew that I could use my gifts to impact the world. And probably going into my junior year, I decided that I was going to be a literacy teacher. And I ended up taking this class at Rutgers Law School and thought, "Oh my God. This is where I need to be." Went back to school, declared my major, and starting preparing for the LSAT. Took the LSAT, applied to law school and could not believe that I did not get into law school. I literally stalked the dean at Rutgers. That sounds like something I would do. I went everywhere. I was like, "Yeah. I don't understand. You clearly did not see what I had in my application." And she was like, "You know what? Go get some life experience, and then come back and talk to us." And so I went to work at La Casa De Don Pedro, which is the largest Hispanic social service center. So what I wanted to do, was be of service, so I continued to do that. I think that, that's a part of what happens to people. They try one time. It doesn't happen. And the reality is, that all of your experiences are really preparing you for that thing that you want. And so I was teaching women who were on welfare. They were going from welfare to work. And I realized still, I'm not gonna be able to change the world one class at a time. I really need to be able to go in there, impact policies, and look at the law, and even if it's one case at a time. And I decided that I'd do this and re-apply. I was able to do that and get in. I think my advice to people is that, get fixated, get obsessed with that thing that you know is not right and that you could change, and change it, in spite of fear. It's not doing these things and not being afraid, it's being afraid of them, feeling the fear, and deciding that this thing is more important than the fear, you know. The more things you try to change in the world, the higher you go, the larger and the greater the dragons you have to slay. Yes. So, decide. For me, it's the “what if.” I do not want to live with, what if I had done this? Yes. That is greater than any other fear I could have. And so when I measure it against the thing that I need to do, it always beats it. I'm always like, "Okay. I'm gonna go get with the dragon right now." Yes. I love it. So speaking of that ... now, you were an attorney for a while. Tell me about the vision then, to become a judge. So I went to work at the city of Newark as the council to the municipal council. And I started to see these people come in. Cory Booker had just become the mayor in the city. I went to work for Mildred Crump, the council president at the time. These people were coming in and they were becoming judges. I thought, "Wow. What an amazing opportunity to really impact people's lives." Because most people will only see the justice system at the municipal level. And to think that you could be speaking potential into the lives of people at the lowest level, but just anyone who comes there, particularly young people, who like in New Jersey, at 18, you're considered an adult. You end up in a criminal court, because you've done something simple, and something kind of stupid. And right now, with the zero tolerance policies that we have in the schools, things that my generation would get sent to the principal's office for, you now get sent to the police officer, who's in the school. And most of the schools have more security and police officers than they even have guidance counselors. You do something stupid. Police officer actually files a complaint against you and you end up in municipal court ... Wow. … for something that, again, a couple of years ago, you would have been sent to the principal's office, and gotten detention or something for. So we're beginning to criminalize our children, even at an earlier age. What happens when you prevent a kid at 18, cause they're still a kid. I know people are gonna be mad when they hear it. No. I was definitely still a kid. At 18 ... I was still a kid at 18. And then all of the collateral consequences that you now impose on this kid because they did what? I had one kid, who ... he jumped on the back of a police cruiser and took a selfie and put it on Facebook. Now, the police officer probably could have smacked him in the back of the head. You know, his friends were egging him on to do it. He got charged with being a disorderly person, and got sent to my court. And this was a kid who was about to go to college. Now, what happens in New Jersey, that disorderly person's offense has collateral consequences with it, including his DNA that now has to go into the DNA bank. Now, I don't know about you, I definitely want any government to have my DNA. Absolutely not. 100%. So those are some, of the things that I really knew we could attack at the municipal court level, even before I became a judge. So then, that was the inspiration then. What was it like when that day actually came, and you were sworn in? Oh, it was the most beautiful thing that I've experienced. And it was beautiful, not just because I was becoming a judge, but we packed our council office, over 300 hundred people showed up. But the people who showed up, were the gentleman who helped, who made me walk when I was eight months old, a high school teacher, former employers. But what was really – what really made me proud were the community people who had shown up, who I had been working with. I mean, one of the community people said to me, "Is your swearing in gonna be open?" I said, "Yeah." And she said, "Yeah, cause you know the streets love you." I thought, what a compliment, because I was of service when I was an attorney. I told you what we could do and what we couldn't do, but that I was a part of this community, and now they were like, "Wow. This judge is gonna be a judge who understands this community." And to me, community is greater than where you live. Rabbi Prince said ... he actually gave a speech right before the, I Have A Dream speech. He said, that community – neighbor is more than your geographical location, but in fact, it is a moral obligation. For me, what we do is both our moral and our professional obligation to our communities. And they're greater than your next door neighbor again. So you've said that being a judge is like having a front row seat to a tragic reality show, that folks often come before you, and they're handcuffed, and they're drug sick and they're depressed and they're hungry, and often mentally ill. Something you shared really struck me. I'm quoting you. "When I saw that their need for help was greater than my fear of appearing vulnerable on the bench, I realized that, not only did I need to do something, but that in fact I could do something." So let's talk about procedural justice. I'm just learning about this, because I've had such the pleasure of learning more about your work. But what is it, for everyone in the audience who isn't familiar, and why could it be so transformative? And is it so transformative? Procedural justice is a concept that say, "If people perceive that they are treated fairly and with dignity, and respect by the system, by the court, then not only does it increase their compliance with court orders, it increases their compliance with the law. And it also increases the public's trust in the system." And so what it does is that, the public has to see the court as a legitimate authority to impose rules and regulations. People don't just follow the rules, because you say so. They say so, because they see you as a legitimate authority, that has the right to tell them what to, and not to do. And so this idea of procedural justice, this idea that people come before you, and that they perceive that you are treating them fairly, and with dignity and respect and that it transforms their behavior, that it changes how they behave, because they are engaged with the court differently. Yes, people ... Not only does it change how they behave, but they'll even be satisfied with the disposition of their case, even when you rule against them. Yes, people are ... Everybody wants to win. Sure. Everybody wants to win, but that they'll be satisfied, that their belief will like, "Well, even though the judge got it wrong, they gave me an opportunity to speak, and they heard my side of the facts, before they made a decision," as well. So this idea of treating people who are in crisis ... when people come to court, they're in crisis. You get a speeding ticket, you're in crisis, you know? And you're a person with means. That they would come to court and they'd have all of these social ills, and that's one of the issues. You know, we are criminalizing social ills. We're really sending them now, we're sending them to judges and saying, "Do something about them. I want this person to stop offending." Well, what I have is a criminal justice approach that I'm now applying to social ills. And it doesn't fix what's bringing them before the court, doesn't change it at all. And so when I was serving as a judge and these people were coming before me and I was disposing of their cases, and then they'd leave, I still hadn't helped them resolve the issue that was bringing them before me. So yes, it was this conveyor belt of justice. The person who came before me who was a drug addict, they'd get 90 days for having possession of drugs. But what I knew was on the 91st day, they were still gonna be a drug addict, cause I hadn't done anything in the first 90 days to impact, or change their behavior, but even offering them assistance. So that this idea of also being able to talk to them and to get them to talk to you, and seeing them. Yes. And so that's what procedural justice ... so this idea of feeling uncomfortable ... Sometimes judges feel really uncomfortable. “I'm gonna ask this person questions about themselves, and maybe reveal something about myself in the process.” In my talk, I talk about the gentleman who was drug sick and he had his head down and he was shaking on the table. But I saw a human being who was going through something. And I asked him – then I asked him about his son. Why?