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US judges impress with "therapeutic justice" presentations

15 March 2019

Two innovative judges from the United States shared insights into "therapeutic justice" at a Faculty of Advocates seminar yesterday evening.

Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, from Florida, told of how she set up America’s first mental health court, while Judge Victoria Pratt, from New Jersey, discussed her commitment to procedural justice – treating people with dignity and respect within the court process – to an audience of criminal practitioners, judges and interested others, chaired by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, as part of their week-long tour of Scotland.

Judge Lerner-Wren's court was established after an inquiry delivered a scathing report on the lack of support available for people with mental health problems, after the high profile case of a young man left brain damaged by a motorcycle accident who was charged with murder after knocking over an elderly woman as he rushed from a supermarket after having a panic attack.

"In 22 years, we have diverted over 22,000 people out of jail into care, back to work, back to school, back to their families", she told her audience. "I have never been more gratified working in the law than I have been doing problem solving work. It is absolutely amazing not only working to deliver justice but to see people thrive, and coming back to your court, saying, ‘Thank you. You have saved my life.’"

The model for her court, which operates involving all stakeholders in the justice and care system and puts the dignity of the person appearing at the centre of its approach, has since been followed across the USA.

Judge Pratt, who operates a municipal level court, said she had been taught by her parents to treat everyone she met with dignity and respect, no matter how they looked, how they dressed or how they spoke.

The concept of procedural justice involved the court participant believing they had been treated with dignity and respect, and as a result they respected the courts and were more likely to obey the law in future.

Four key principles were giving people a voice, being seen to be neutral so as to build their trust, making sure they understood the process and what was expected of them, and treating them with respect, which included courtesy.

"Above all is respect. Without it none of the other principles work. And respect is contagious", said Judge Pratt.

She recalled one long-term addict, a seemingly lost cause, who had returned to her court a changed man to tell her: "I came back to court because you showed me more love than I had for myself."

Judge Pratt added: "When you treat somebody with dignity and respect, you are saying, ‘I see you.’"

She said her disposals enjoyed a 70% compliance rate.

Both judges were impressed with what they saw of the Scottish system.

"We have had an intense, whirlwind tour, and to cap it off here (at the Faculty) is just really overwhelming,” said Judge Lerner-Wren. “I have had an amazing time, unforgettable, and I can’t wait to come back."

Judge Pratt added: "It has been great to see all the work you are doing here to provide and dispense justice for citizens, and how you are identifying gaps in your system and innovative ways of filling those gaps."



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