September 18, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers professor presents TED Talk on reforming the prison system


Rutgers Law School professor and Newark Chief Municipal Judge Victoria Pratt appeared at TEDNYC last month and discussed how empathetic values could reshape the criminal justice system.

Her TED Talk,  "How judges can show respect," is an open-diary of her tenure at the Newark Municipal Courthouse and explains how when authoritative figures treat people with respect, these people are more likely to trust the law enforcement system.

When first sworn in, Pratt dealt with offenders in ways that changed the culture of the Newark courtroom. 

Using principles backed by research from Tom Tyler, a professor from Yale University, Pratt changed the “revolving door justice” culture in Newark and made sure offenders understood their charges and were treated with dignity.

Her tenure included the launch of a Newark Community Solutions pilot project, where non-violent offenders who need help with mental health, substance abuse or employment, are given resources to succeed.

Pratt’s use of procedural justice, along with the combination of alternative sentencing, was effective.

The pilot program's first formal evaluation of the municipal criminal courtroom stated that approximately 70 percent of defendants complete their mandates and avoid jail time — an above average number for compliance with court orders, according to The Guardian.

Sometimes, defendants would be required to write an essay as part of their sentence to avoid jail time, which would help them answer questions they are usually struggling with, Pratt said. 

“I was shocked that people would be so brutally honest in these essays,” she said. “But it was the first time, I guess, that somebody acknowledged their worth by asking them a question about themselves.”

Now, her courtroom’s attitude is one arm of a larger body fighting for criminal justice reform.

“She is an example, I think, of the new thinking going on among visionary criminal justice leadership,” said Todd Clear, a distinguished professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University—Newark.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, former President Richard Nixon was the first to use the term “law and order” in response to the public unrest felt coming off a two-decade trend of crime increase. Legislators at that time passed laws to intensify the punitiveness of the criminal justice system, which meant longer sentences and less access to alternative sentencing, Clear said.

“What Judge Pratt has been doing, is not only a contrast to what’s been happening to the last 40 years, but it shows why the last 40 years of criminal justice reform has not delivered a better society in the way we hoped it would,” Clear said.

The stricter sentencing laws caused a 500 percent increase in incarceration in the past 40 years according to statistics from the Sentencing Project.

Now, procedural fairness and its practice to consider the lives of defendants, how they feel and the role they serve in communities and families, is a balance to the criminal justice reform conversation, Clear said.

Pratt teaches a course called Restorative Justice and Problem-Solving Justice at Rutgers Law School and says she will continue to raise awareness about procedural justice through judicial training.

“It’s this whole idea that people want their systems to do better and be better,” Pratt said.


Abner Bonilla

Abner Bonilla is a School of Arts and Sciences senior. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. 


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