The Guardian has a great long read talking about procedural justice happening in Newark, N.J. and Red Hook, Brooklyn. This is “an idea that in recent months has become central to the debate about reforming the US criminal justice system. The idea behind procedural justice is that people are far more likely to obey the law if the justice system does not humiliate them, but treats them fairly and with respect. That begins with the way judges speak to defendants,” the article says.
The way the judge in this piece talks to defendants in her court room very much reminded me of the open-minded judge I spoke with and whose courtroom I subsequently visited during research for my current project.
This an excerpt from an assignment I wrote for my director earlier this year. I had observed the Recovery with Justice program out of the West Roxbury division of Boston Municipal Court:
Women, who are usually mothers and typically the primary caregivers, risk separation from their children when they shoplift or sell their bodies for money or the next fix; that’s when they may become criminally justice involved. That separation comes with its own set of negative byproducts and ongoing risks, including the chance that children will themselves become criminally justice involved.
Judge Kathleen Coffey of West Roxbury District Court, who runs Recovery with Justice, a mental health court that meets every Tuesday, agrees that this population often has complicated lives but she sees merit in nonresidential care. She said criminal justice involved people with underlying mental health issues should be given the chance at getting better while being connected to their families and not incarcerated.
“So many of the people who I’ve placed in the [Recovery with Justice] program, you’re placing them in because they were arrested for shoplifting and then you find out they’re being evicted and have a daughter who’s pregnant, who’s 13, and a man who’s beating them. It’s all these other social issues,” says Coffey. “From a judicial point of view, you just wonder how do they get out of bed every day, never mind navigate the social services or criminal justice systems.”
People attend Recovery with Justice as a court-sanctioned alternative to incarceration. They are required to meet with the court psychologist and other counselors; they often attend treatment on an outpatient basis at mental health clubhouses. They also check in with the court at regular intervals: once a week, once a month, depending on their progress.
During her court sessions Coffey is equal parts cheerleader and police officer guarding the strict mandates she doles out for individual recovery. “I’m proud of you. Keep up the good work,” Coffey told one Recovery with Justice participant last week. That’s a common refrain from the judge. She’s also partial to telling people, “You are important. You matter.” For less positive progress in the program, she tempers: “Life is hard, and all I ask you to do is keep trying.”
But ultimately, the goal for many who study women and incarceration is have them not be involved in the court system in the first place. That, experts say, would make a true “alternative to incarceration.”