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Simple idea – profound consequences

The principle

Every one of us wants to know that we matter. Whether or not we are aware of that need, it’s that fundamental longing that gets nourished when people treat us with respect and fairness.

And it’s our sense of mattering that takes a hit when we are ignored, dismissed or treated without care.

When life hits us so hard that we spin out onto the very edge of society, and we have no voice, then our sense of self-worth is likely to be shattered.

What does it take to recover it?

A municipal court in Newark, New Jersey has an answer.

Case 1

Judge Victoria Pratt has before her a man addicted to heroin for 30 years, with fines unpaid, court appearances missed and warrants for his arrest. Seeking out the human side, she finds out he has a son aged 32. ‘So you haven’t been a father to him for most of his life’ she said. The man begins to cry.

Taking a risk, she releases him, instructs the community worker to find a treatment programme for him and orders him back in two weeks time. Would he come back to court?

Yes. Two weeks later he is there.

‘You showed me more love than I have for myself. So I came back to get some help’ she recalled him saying.

Judge Pratt was startled to hear that a simple inquiry about the man’s relationship with his son was experienced as love and it had a profound effect on her.

Case 2

‘Mr Cawley’, an African-American man in his 20s, receives a sentence of 30 days in jail, suspended pending completion of a ‘mandate’ of community service, counselling and attendance at a support group. Significantly, Judge Victoria Pratt gives him an additional assignment.

He is required to write an essay in answer to the question ‘Where do I see myself in five years time?’

Eleven days later, he is back in court. Judge Pratt greets him with a friendly ‘Good morning ‘Mr Cawley’. What’s going on with you today?’ and invites him to read his essay.

She quizzes him about his vision. She is impressed by his answers. She treats him like a human being. How different from the conventional court process in which defendants are effectively invisible, whilst the judge addresses comments only to their legal representatives in a language that the defendant is unlikely to understand.

Hearing from the mandate co-ordinator that he had completed his mandate, Judge Pratt applauds him. Other court staff join the applause. Defendants at the back of the room, awaiting their turn before the Judge, applaud him too.

Procedural justice: why it works

What is happening in Newark has its origins in Brooklyn where the court’s intention was to stop the cycle of offenders going in and out of jail, by offering them support coupled with monitoring of compliance. They make frequent returns to court to discuss their progress. If they complete their ‘mandate’, they stay out of jail. But failure to complete carried a longer jail sentence than they would have received in other courts.

The outcomes of such innovative approaches to justice include a significant reduction in crime.

So what’s the secret? Since the length of the counselling and support prescribed in the ‘mandates’ is hardly long enough to change the lives of the defendants, there must be something else at work.

In both courts, defendants are treated with respect. They understand what is expected of them and they have a voice. The requirement to write an essay makes them think about things they would otherwise have ignored.

Being treated with compassion mitigates the disrespectful treatment many of them would have suffered earlier in the judicial process and helped heal relationships between the police and the community.

Underpinning all this is the relationship between judge and defendant. Defendants experience the system as fair, and accept the legitimacy of the court rulings.

What has this got to do with you?

You, I hope, are not in dire straights, dependent on a compassionate judge to give you another chance in life. So why am I telling you about Judge Pratt?

It’s because I want to:
1.    share the inspiration and hope that I experienced in reading how ‘Mr Cawley’ and his fellow defendants were treated
2.    remind myself to relate to everyone I encounter in ways that say ‘you matter’.

Bringing it closer to home

My invitation to you is to ask yourself what YOU do to send that same message. Think of your partner, your family, your children. Then your colleagues and friends. And then consider the people you have only fleeting contact with: the elderly man at Tesco’s collecting the shopping trolleys; the ‘Big Issue’ seller; the homeless woman with her dog at the entrance to Waterloo Station.

Maybe it’s something as simple as making eye contact and offering a ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’.

Or it might be that you stop to talk and to hear their story.

With people closer to you, it could be a matter of taking your time to choose your words carefully, responding promptly to a request or maybe just giving someone your full attention.

However big or small your gesture, know that it counts.

The article that so inspired me appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 23rd June 2015

Speaking at Rutgers Law School in 2016, she explained her approach in more detail.