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  • "Judge, I want to tell you something. I want to tell you something.

  • I been watching you

  • and you're not two-faced.

  • You treat everybody the same."

  • That was said to me by a transgender prostitute

  • who before I had gotten on the bench

  • had fired her public defender,

  • insulted the court officer

  • and yelled at the person sitting next to her,

  • "I don't know what you're looking at. I look better than the girl you're with."

  • (Laughter)

  • She said this to me

  • after I said her male name low enough

  • so that it could be picked up by the record,

  • but I said her female name loud enough

  • so that she could walk down the aisle towards counselor's table with dignity.

  • This is procedural justice, also known as procedural fairness,

  • at its best.

  • You see, I am the daughter of an African-American garbageman

  • who was born in Harlem

  • and spent his summers in the segregated South.

  • Soy la hija de una peluquera dominicana.

  • I do that to make sure you're still paying attention.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm the daughter of a Dominican beautician

  • who came to this country for a better life for her unborn children.

  • My parents taught me, you treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect,

  • no matter how they look, no matter how they dress,

  • no matter how they spoke.

  • You see, the principles of fairness

  • were taught to me at an early age,

  • and unbeknownst to me, it would be the most important lesson

  • that I carried with me to the Newark Municipal Court bench.

  • And because I was dragged off the playground

  • at the early age of 10 to translate for family members

  • as they began to migrate to the United States,

  • I understand how daunting it can be for a person, a novice,

  • to navigate any government system.

  • Every day across America and around the globe,

  • people encounter our courts,

  • and it is a place that is foreign, intimidating

  • and often hostile towards them.

  • They are confused about the nature of their charges,

  • annoyed about their encounters with the police

  • and facing consequences that might impact their relationships, their finances

  • and even their liberty.

  • Let me paint a picture for you

  • of what it's like for the average person who encounters our courts.

  • First, they're annoyed as they're probed going through court security.

  • They finally get through court security, they walk around the building,

  • they ask different people the same question

  • and get different answers.

  • When they finally get to where they're supposed to be,

  • it gets really bad when they encounter the courts.

  • What would you think if I told you

  • that you could improve people's court experience,

  • increase their compliance with the law

  • and court orders,

  • all the while increasing the public's trust

  • in the justice system

  • with a simple idea?

  • Well, that simple idea is procedural justice

  • and it's a concept that says

  • that if people perceive they are treated fairly

  • and with dignity and respect,

  • they'll obey the law.

  • Well, that's what Yale professor Tom Tyler found

  • when he began to study as far back in the '70s

  • why people obey the law.

  • He found that if people see the justice system

  • as a legitimate authority to impose rules and regulations,

  • they would follow them.

  • His research concluded

  • that people would be satisfied

  • with the judge's rulings,

  • even when the judge ruled against them,

  • if they perceived that they were treated fairly

  • and with dignity and respect.

  • And that perception of fairness begins with what?

  • Begins with how judges speak to court participants.

  • Now, being a judge

  • is sometimes like having a reserve seat to a tragic reality show

  • that has no commercial interruptions

  • and no season finale.

  • It's true.

  • People come before me handcuffed,

  • drug-sick, depressed, hungry

  • and mentally ill.

  • 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.

  • The good news is is that the principles of procedural justice are easy

  • and can be implemented as quickly as tomorrow.

  • The even better news, that it can be done for free.

  • (Laughter)

  • The first principle is voice.

  • Give people an opportunity to speak,

  • even when you're not going to let them speak.

  • Explain it.

  • "Sir, I'm not letting you speak right now.

  • You don't have an attorney.

  • I don't want you to say anything that's going to hurt your case."

  • For me, assigning essays to defendants

  • has been a tremendous way of giving them voice.

  • I recently gave an 18-year-old college student an essay.

  • He lamented his underage drinking charge.

  • As he stood before me reading his essay,

  • his voice cracking and his hands trembling,

  • he said that he worried that he had become an alcoholic like his mom,

  • who had died a couple of months prior due to alcohol-related liver disease.

  • You see, assigning a letter to my father, a letter to my son,

  • "If I knew then what I know now ..."

  • "If I believed one positive thing about myself,

  • how would my life be different?"

  • gives the person an opportunity to be introspective,

  • go on the inside,

  • which is where all the answers are anyway.

  • But it also gives them an opportunity

  • to share something with the court that goes beyond their criminal record

  • and their charges.

  • The next principle is neutrality.

  • When increasing public trust in the justice system,

  • neutrality is paramount.

  • The judge cannot be perceived to be favoring one side over the other.

  • The judge has to make a conscious decision not to say things like,

  • "my officer," "my prosecutor," "my defense attorney."

  • And this is challenging when we work in environments

  • where you have people assigned to your courts,

  • the same people coming in and out of your courts as well.

  • When I think of neutrality,

  • I'm reminded of when I was a new Rutgers Law grad

  • and freshly minted attorney,

  • and I entered an arbitration and I was greeted by two grey-haired men

  • who were joking about the last game of golf they played together

  • and planning future social outings.

  • I knew my client couldn't get a fair shot in that forum.

  • The next principle is understand.

  • It is critical that court participants understand the process,

  • the consequences of the process

  • and what's expected of them.

  • I like to say that legalese is the language we use to confuse.

  • (Laughter)

  • I am keenly aware that the people who appear before me,

  • many of them have very little education

  • and English is often their second language.

  • So I speak plain English in court.

  • A great example of this was when I was a young judge --

  • oh no, I mean younger judge.

  • (Laughter)

  • When I was a younger judge, a senior judge comes to me,

  • gives me a script and says,

  • "If you think somebody has mental health issues,

  • ask them these questions and you can get your evaluation."

  • So the first time I saw someone

  • who had what I thought was a mental health issue,

  • I went for my script and I started to ask questions.

  • "Um, sir, do you take psycho -- um, psychotrop --

  • psychotropic medication?"

  • "Nope."

  • "Uh, sir, have you treated with a psychiatrist before?"

  • "Nope."

  • But it was obvious that the person was suffering from mental illness.

  • One day, in my frustration, I decided to scrap the script and ask one question.

  • "Ma'am, do you take medication to clear your mind?"

  • "Yeah, judge, I take Haldol for my schizophrenia,

  • Xanax for my anxiety."

  • The question works even when it doesn't.

  • "Mr. L, do you take medication to clear your mind?"

  • "No, judge, I don't take no medication to clear my mind.

  • I take medication to stop the voices in my head,

  • but my mind is fine."

  • (Laughter)

  • You see, once people understand the question,

  • they can give you valuable information

  • that allows the court to make meaningful decisions

  • about the cases that are before them.

  • The last principle is respect,

  • that without it none of the other principles can work.

  • Now, respect can be as simple as,

  • "Good afternoon, sir." "Good morning, ma'am."

  • It's looking the person in the eye who is standing before you,

  • especially when you're sentencing them.

  • It's when I say, "Um, how are you doing today?

  • And what's going on with you?"

  • And not as a greeting,

  • but as someone who is actually interested in the response.

  • Respect is the difference between saying,

  • "Ma'am, are you having difficulty

  • understanding the information in the paperwork?"

  • versus, "You can read and write, can't you?"

  • when you've realized there's a literacy issue.

  • And the good thing about respect is that it's contagious.

  • People see you being respectful to other folks

  • and they impute that respect to themselves.

  • You see, that's what the transgender prostitute was telling me.

  • I'm judging you just as much as you think you may be judging me.

  • Now, I am not telling you what I think,

  • I am telling you what I have lived,

  • using procedural justice to change the culture at my courthouse

  • and in the courtroom.

  • After sitting comfortably for seven months

  • as a traffic court judge,

  • I was advised that I was being moved to the criminal court,

  • Part Two, criminal courtroom.

  • Now, I need you to understand,

  • this was not good news.

  • (Laughter)

  • It was not.

  • Part Two was known as the worst courtroom in the city,

  • some folks would even say in the state.

  • It was your typical urban courtroom with revolving door justice,

  • you know, your regular lineup of low-level offenders --

  • you know, the low-hanging fruit,

  • the drug-addicted prostitute,

  • the mentally ill homeless person with quality-of-life tickets,

  • the high school dropout petty drug dealer and the misguided young people --

  • you know, those folks doing a life sentence

  • 30 days at a time.

  • Fortunately, the City of Newark decided that Newarkers deserved better,

  • and they partnered with the Center for Court Innovation

  • and the New Jersey Judiciary

  • to create Newark Community Solutions,

  • a community court program

  • that provided alternative sanctions.

  • This means now a judge

  • can sentence a defendant to punishment with assistance.

  • So a defendant who would otherwise get a jail sentence

  • would now be able to get individual counseling sessions,

  • group counseling sessions as well as community giveback,

  • which is what we call community service.

  • The only problem is that this wonderful program

  • was now coming to Newark and was going to be housed where?

  • Part Two criminal courtroom.

  • And the attitudes there were terrible.

  • And the reason that the attitudes were terrible there

  • was because everyone who was sent there

  • understood they were being sent there as punishment.

  • The officers who were facing disciplinary actions at times,

  • the public defender and prosecutor

  • felt like they were doing a 30-day jail sentence on their rotation,

  • the judges understood they were being hazed

  • just like a college sorority or fraternity.

  • I was once told that an attorney who worked there

  • referred to the defendants as "the scum of the earth"

  • and then had to represent them.

  • I would hear things from folks like,

  • "Oh, how could you work with those people? They're so nasty.

  • You're a judge, not a social worker."

  • But the reality is that as a society, we criminalize social ills,

  • then sent people to a judge and say, "Do something."

  • I decided that I was going to lead by example.

  • So my first foray into the approach came when a 60-something-year-old man

  • appeared before me handcuffed.

  • His head was lowered and his body was showing the signs of drug withdrawal.