There is a recurrent type of blog post in my writing; the one where I drive an inordinate distance to hear someone speak who inspires me and adds something to my learning and thinking. I then write up notes about what the speaker said, partly so that I have a record for myself and partly in case anyone could not make the event and wants a summary.
Speakers who feature in the series include: Sarah Jayne Blakemore, Karin Chenoweth, Suzanne Zeedyk, The Real David Cameron and Professor Robbie Gilligan.
Last night, I had the incredible good fortune to get a two for one deal. I set off from Lochgilphead just after three and the soundtrack to my journey consisted of the songs that I need to learn for the Mid Argyll music festival next week: The 59th Street Bridge Song by Paul Simon;The Water of Tyne (trad); Purcell’s Music For a While; Eric Idle’s Whatever Happened to My Part and Think Twice, made famous by Celine Dion. Eclectic? Definitely. Under-rehearsed, given that the festival is next week? Certainly. But slightly more familiar after playing on a loop between Kilmory and Shields Road carpark? Without doubt.
The two speakers that I had the incredible good fortune to hear last night were two judges from the US who spoke about their experiences of “Presiding with Kindness” within the US criminal Justice System: Judge Victoria Pratt and Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. I had been invited to attend by Ian Smith, a Scottish lawyer who is leading the rally to make Scottish justice more trauma-informed and whom I have got to know through virtual discussion around Adverse Childhood Experiences.
My passion is making schools kind places where adults connect authentically with children in order to help them learn and develop, where mistakes are part of learning and where systems are based on genuine mutual respect and restorative approaches, rather than discipline and humiliation. I have worked in many schools and with many staff who have shared this passion over the years and achieved huge successes because of it; my driver as a leader and role model is to help others see the benefits in such an approach.
These are my notes of what I heard last night. They may not be word for word perfect but I hope that they summarise the key messages.
Judge Victoria Pratt is a pioneer of procedural justice in Newark, New Jersey.
Her fundamental starting point is that people in the criminal justice system must be treated with kindness, dignity and respect.
She talked about how traditional courts are foreign and intimidating to those who are called to them: they are herded through security and shouted at by people telling them to discard their personal items; they ask people in uniforms the same question and get a different answer each time; they are scolded for rules they never knew anything about
She suggested a simple alternative to this: if people perceive they are treated with respect and dignity then they will respect the law and trust the system.
How judges speak to litigants is key.
Judges have the reserved seats at a tragic reality show.
Principle 1 in her system = voice. Allow people to tell their story.
She is known for assigning essays to those who have offended as a reflective task.
She gave an example of a high school student aged 18 who had been brought in to court for possession of a knife (although it may only have been a butter knife).
The sad truth is that there were more police than counsellors in the girl’s school.
Her essay said “I’m scaredand that’s why I have a knife all the time.”
Judge Pratt wanted to know why this girl was so scared and could not stop thinking about it so she asked the girl’s social worker; it turned out that the girl’s stepfather had been sexually abusing her.
She did not feel protected by anyone in school whose job was to keep her safe.
If we take time to hear people’s stories, we understand them better.
2nd principle = neutrality
Sometimes people are allowed to speak and offer opinions or information in courts who are not impartial or neutral and this is not right and has to be challenged.
3rd principle = understand
There is an absolute need for those who work in criminal justice to understand the reality of poverty and mental health and to ensure that people understand what is being discussed in court.
Judge Pratt spoke of legalese being the language we used to confuse.
She explained how she uses plain English instead and explains why:
She was one given a list of questions to ask by a senior judge- for example “do you take psychotropic drugs?”. She realised that she did not understand half the words in the questions, let alone know how to pronounce them and so decided to re-phrase them in plain language such as “Ma’am, do you take medication to clear your head?”
The last principle = respect
This can be as simple as saying “good afternoon sir / ma’am.”
Or asking “how are you doing today?”… and wait for the answer.
Respect is contagious.
Judge Pratt explained that she was not telling us what she thinks but what she has done in her court.
She told us how she was once directed to go to a new court; it was seen by everyone as being the worst court to work in, in terms of drugs and mental health issues.
At first she said “no” but the senior judge told her that that the only alternative was the night court. She thought for a while; she realised she was at the point of looking for a husband and would never manage that if she was working at night so went for the ‘worst court’ option!
In fact, she learnt a huge amount by doing that work.
In one drugs case she asked the man about his son. He had never fathered him due to his drug habit. He cried when he spoke about him so she let him go home and told him to come back in two weeks.
She had a reputation with others working in the court: “she let’s everyone go home. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. He will never come back.” she crossed her fingers.
They said he would not come back. He did.
When he came back he said “I came back because you showed me more love than I had for myself.”
If the court behaves differently the community behaves differently.
Mr Scott was another. He had about 14 tickets for minor offences.
He was pan-handling but wasn’t an addict. Had been beaten up when younger and had a brain injury so was functioning as a 12 year old. He also had a 12 year old son. She said “what will I do with you? Why don’t you stop?”
He said “my son eats through the food stamps. What can I do?”
She didn’t send him to prison because she listened to his story and understood where he was coming from.
Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren practices therapeutic jurisprudence (also known as TJ). in Florida
She explained how two Professors at the University of Miami first developed the idea: Bruce Winick and David Wexler.
They read, analysed case law and wrote.
In the 80s in the US, mental health law was emerging.
Judge Lerner Wren spoke about the invisible psychological forces in a court and how what the judge says and how the judge behaves are key.
The question is, can courts act as therapeutic agents?
Miami in the 80’s had a reputation for drugs and crime – think Miami Vice!
Janet Reno was a judge at that time whose family had come from Denmark; her father had engaged in human rights. Her thinking helped TJ move forward. She looked at drugs offences and the revolving door of prison and trauma.
In a way it is ironic that justice innovation came out of Florida.
There is currently just 39 dollars and 55 cents allocated per person in Florida for mental health support per year. It is a state in crisis.
There are currently 386 thousand people in US jails with serious mental health issues and trauma. Prisons are the largest de-facto psychiatric hospitals in existence.
Judge Lerner-Wren started out in disability law. She did guardianship work for people who had no family to support them.
Families kept coming to her saying “I hear you can help my brother”. “I hear you can help my mother”. In fact, she couldn’t help as she could only help those without any relatives.
She wondered whether the county commission offices were sending people to her who she could not actually help. They said not.
But then she got a silent intuitive nudge that they’d been coming to her for a reason; she saw this as her calling and moved to working in a psych hospital around discharge.
Over the years she gained massive experience and skills with mental health and drugs…..and she then thought “how can I make a difference in a really big way?”
“I’ll run for judge”.
A new judicial seat was funded and she was elected; there was huge synchronicity.
At this time, the case of a young man raised consciousness of issues relating to trauma and brain injury.
Aaron Wynn, an 18 year old with a bright future was run over and suffered traumatic brain injury. This left his family in peril. They were given 5 diagnoses but these only served to confuse and did not explain his behaviour. He was confined for 2 and a half years in 4 and 5 point restraints.
He was then released back to his family with no notification.
One day he was out in the shop when he suffered a panic attack and ran out into the street. As he ran out, he collided with 85 year old Colleen Johnson who fell and suffered head injuries which she then died from. He was done for murder.
Howard Finkelstein then stepped in; he was a fantastic lawyer who went on to have his own TV show “Help Me Howard”.
He met with the man’s family and it completely changed his views; he had thought jail was helping but then realised it was not. It was a revolving door.
In 1994, he wrote 10 page letter to the Grand Jury of Broward County saying that had there been mental health treatments and support for his client, this would never have happened. He asked for a review. They did it. 8 months later a 153 page scathing report was produced that spoke of a “deplorable system” where no-one is accountable for anyone or anything.
A task force of mental health experts and judges was set up but would not agree. They then asked Howard what he wanted. He said “my own court”.
It was set up in 96/97.
10 yrs on, Howard was asked about it and he said “I wanted a court of refuge for people with issues where a judge would do no harm to people already. overwhelmed by life itself”.
They wanted therapeutic settings not prisons.
In her work, Judge Lerner-Wren wanted a clear message: that recovery is possible They were a small team and had no money but the number one lesson, borrowed from Margeret Mead, was “never underestimate what a small community with passion can do.”
If you have vision and an empowered community, you can do anything.
She has been driven by a thirst for justice and abiding belief in recovery.
By another stroke of serendipity, Janet Reno got appointed as 1st female Attorney General at the same time as Browards Court was established.
They showed that early intervention is key and that treatment works, if it is individually tailored.
90% of women in justice system have experienced trauma or an ACE.
But isn’t this really about all of us with our trauma and divorce and messy lives?
Dignity is the centrepiece of this work.
We want to hear stories, dreams and visions.
The court is voluntary and its key message is “we are here for you”.
People fall down in the court as they are not expecting this message. All you need is one person to believe in you.
People are not their symptoms, diagnosis or bad days.
Restoration of personhood is a marked goal of the court and diversion from criminal justice into care.
But any time you try and change things there will be negativity and naysayers.
Mental health and the de-institutionalisation of mental health has not really been taken seriously in the US.
Physical ill health took you to the hospital.
Psychotic illness took you to jail.
In the follow up Q and A, the Judges added the following (and I hope I have credited what was said to the right judge!)
Institutions and systems exist to sustain themselves; if you challenge you are kicked out, like a foreign body in the body is kicked out.
Judge Lerner Wren:
Policy makers work up at a high level but need to ask “what do the people want?”
If people are not talking bad about you, then you are not working hard enough.
Scotland is leading the world in terms of ACE awareness and that should be celebrated.
We are a world in despair: how do we create more optimism across the globe and build resilience in the face of drugs, climate change, social media and what is happening to our children?
We work together through synergy and advocate for mental health.
Mental health is essential to all health.
How many families really know how to talk about mental health?
If we don’t like what the current leaders are doing, we need to vote in new candidates!
The energy, enthusiasm, experience and optimism of these two incredible women were an absolute tonic.
Sometimes we need a reminder of our “why” and last night’s event helped me to remember mine:
The “why” behind me learning the names of all the 500 pupils in my school is respect.
The “why” behind me greeting every pupil in the morning before school is love.
The “why” behind me telling every pupil and parent/carer that they can talk to me is listening to their voices.
The “why” behind me writing about mental health and talking about my own is that people are more than their diagnosis, symptoms and bad days.
The “why” behind me being an irritant and getting talked bad about is that I am working hard to make the world a better and optimistic place. Sometimes I do feel like giving up in the face of the naysayers who tell me that my ideas will be the downfall of education …..but last night reminded me of why I can’t and why they aren’t.
And the “why” behind me singing those under-rehearsed songs in a competition alongside the pupils and family members from my community next week is that showing up as your real self and risking mistakes allows real connection.
Thanks so very, very much to the Judges, to Ian and to Christine Goodall and Medics against Violence for their organisation of the event and to Laura Maxwell for her beautiful introduction.
You can see more of Judge Pratt in her Ted Talk and read more about Judge Lerner-Wren’s ideas in her book “A Court of Refuge”.
Principal Teacher for Looked After Children
Oban Education Office
Tel: 01546 604231
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