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How Can America Reduce Mass Incarceration?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Judge Victoria Pratt is known for having done her best to avoid sending people to jail by offering alternatives such as community service, social services and even writing a personal essay. She served as chief judge of Newark's municipal court and presided over Newark Community Solutions, a community court program providing alternative sentences to low-level offenders. That program is run by the city of Newark in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based nonprofit that works to reform the justice system.

The center's director for policy and research, Julian Adler, is also joining us. He's the co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration." Alternatives to jail are important to Judge Pratt and Julian Adler because, as Adler and his co-author write, jails are accelerants of human misery. If you are poor or mentally ill or struggling to keep your family together when you enter, the chances are that all of these conditions will be markedly worse when you come out. Judge Pratt is now a professor at Rutgers University Law School.

Julian Adler, Judge Victoria Pratt, welcome to FRESH AIR. So there's many ways in which the system appears to be unfair to the poor. A very good example of that is fines and bail, which, Julian, you write about in the book. And Judge Pratt, I know you've had to deal with things like that. So just spell out for us some of the ways that fines and bail are much more difficult for the poor and can lead to a further spiral downward.

VICTORIA PRATT: In most instances, we know that people who are poor live on incredibly limited finances. So imagine you leave your house as a person who doesn't have much income coming in anyway. You get stopped by the police, potentially for being outside of your home. You're complaining about an eviction that's coming up and subsequently get ticketed for a quality of life ticket for being a disorderly person in front of the house. You could even be ticketed for failing to obey the officers' orders because you've questioned why you've been stopped in the first place.

You now come down to the courthouse. And, as a part of the process, you plead guilty either so that you're not dealing with this ticket anymore - and you get a fine. Well, the court's required to make a determination as to whether or not you can pay a fine, and that usually does not happen. Let's say it's $50 plus court costs, so you're now at $83, potentially. You now ask the court for a timed payment to make this payment on this fine, and you're not working.

Well, when you don't make that payment, that becomes a delinquent time payment. And, oftentimes, a bench warrant will issue for being noncompliant with the court's orders. You may get picked up for it. So now you have a fine, and maybe you have a warrant. So you can pay neither. And it creates this cycle now that this person who's poor, who didn't have money to pay the fine when we gave it to them, ends up caught in the criminal justice system.

GROSS: When you were a judge, did you see a lot of cases where people were in this downward spiral and were in the criminal justice system because they were poor and unable to pay fines?

PRATT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And fortunately, the city of Newark decided that Newarkers deserve better, and we created Newark Community Solutions. There are some ways that judges can do - like I said, converting fines to community service and other means to help people pay with - pay for fines. But there are also, in certain instances, mandatory fines that, at one point in time in New Jersey, we could do nothing with. We could vacate court cost, but those mandatory fines kind of sat there, and people often got picked up multiple times on those fines. And so in other jurisdictions, they're still dealing with those mandatory fines that just keep people shackled to this system of incarceration.

GROSS: What's an example of a mandatory fine that you used to have to deal with in Newark?

PRATT: If you plead guilty to criminal matters, the law requires a mandatory VCC and Safe Neighborhood fine. So even on a disorderly persons offense, you would get a fine, maybe, of $100 - or no fine, but it's $75 plus that $50 and then $33 court costs. The judge could waive the other fines. But those two they could not waive.

Now we can impose it, but they can be waived upon conversion of the fine to something else. But imagine people being on $158 multiple times. And people come before you, and they say, oh, no, Judge. I'm going to get a check, or I'll get a job soon. And it wouldn't happen, right? People with mental health issues, the drug-addicted prostitute, the Vietnam veteran who lives at Newark Penn Station, which is the state's largest homeless shelter. So these people would just kind of come through - constantly just come through the system on those small fines.

GROSS: How frustrating is it as a judge when you don't have flexibility?

PRATT: Oh, incredibly frustrating. You want to administer justice. You want this thing to be fair that you're doing, and you know that you're - you can't keep this person out of the system because of small amounts of money. Now, the problem is that this also has implications for their outside life. This person now gets arrested, and they spend a day and a half in custody.

Let's say they have a job. Who keeps - who's going to hold a job for you when you don't call in, and you miss work, right? Or potentially, you now get arrested. You're on your way to do something. You now get arrested. Your kid's at home. Now you have a division of family child welfare case as a result of being arrested for a small amount of money that you may owe. And then the frustration that it builds - right? - because now, financially, you're facing hardship, and the world's against you. And then now you're involved with the criminal justice, and the warrants just follow you.

JULIAN ADLER: And the way that we think of it is that, really, jails are accelerants of human misery. And what they often do, as the judge as described, is take very difficult, complicated life circumstances and exacerbate challenges that individuals and families and communities are facing.

PRATT: Absolutely.

ADLER: And the idea that the default system should be money bail or jail for a broad range of offenses is not normatively defensible, nor does it necessarily promote public safety.

GROSS: So, Judge Pratt, you formerly presided over Newark Community Solutions, which provided alternatives to jail for many low-level offenders. And you were - you were in a section called Part 2. What is Part 2?

PRATT: Part 2 Criminal Court is the arraignment court of Newark Municipal Court, and now it is the home of Newark Community Solutions. Prior to Newark Community Solutions, the nickname for it was The Deuce because it was where you had all your low-level offenders. These same people that we're talking about - the folks who would come in, through all the other courts particularly, and get fined. And they'd end up with warrants. And so, typically, they'd get arrested. So it was the custody court. So you would see the people who were arrested on warrants for not appearing in court or for not paying.

So this included people who picked up traffic matters, right? So you pick up a traffic offense, plead guilty, and you don't pay your fine. And warrant was issued for your arrest, as well. And so these individuals just kind of cycled through this particular court. And the frustration was incredible because you would see people, and you would actually see their condition. You would know that this person had mental health issues, and now they were subject to this fine that you could do nothing about - and, really, wanting to be able to do something other than just revise their timed payment, you know, and listen to this story that you knew wasn't true of oh, no, no, no, Judge. I'm going to get my check next month, and then this thing is going to happen.

But even if they had a check from next month, there were still other things that they needed to really help them become full citizens again. And as a judge, if you didn't have the tools or the resources to kind of send them out or get them the help they needed, you could do nothing.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Julian Adler, co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration." He's the director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation. And I'm also with Judge Victoria Pratt, who presided over the Newark Community Solutions, where she was chief judge. And this is a group that provides alternatives to jail for many low-level offenders. She's now a professor teaching restorative justice and problem-solving justice at Rutgers Law School. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about alternatives to mass incarceration - ways to reduce mass incarceration through different approaches to sentencing. I have two guests. Julian Adler is the co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Road Map To Reducing Mass Incarceration." He's the director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation where he leads the work on national criminal justice reform projects. Also with me is Judge Victoria Pratt who was the chief judge at Newark Community Solutions, which provided alternatives to jail for many low-level offenders - alternative sentencing. She's now a professor, teaching restorative justice and problem-solving justice at Rutgers Law School.

So, Judge Pratt, give us an example of someone, who came before your court, that you gave an alternative sentence to. So instead of sending them to the county jail, you sentenced them to something else.

PRATT: There was a young man who started to come to court around the age of 18 - very odd cases. He'd pick up, like, these domestic violence cases, but it just meant that he was related to the individuals who were filing the complaints. He would go to his relatives homes and, like, ring the doorbell or knock on the door and create a disturbance, and they'd call the police. And when he would see the police, he would yell obscenities at them. And he began to come through the court, and I couldn't figure out why he was picking up, like, these particular cases.

It wasn't that he was a young drug dealer or had marijuana charges - just these kind of behavioral charges. And I was able to get him to see one of the social workers. And in this instance, we realized that - and I was - and I learned that around 18, the signs of schizophrenia begin to show, and that was what was happening with this young man. He was beginning to have the signs of schizophrenia. And sometimes he'd come to court, and I noticed that he'd be nodding or he'd be very angry. But he was really kind of fighting with the voices that he was having in his head.

And after kind of putting him through the program, he became very open to the social workers. He would come back. He developed a relationship with the police officers and the court, which was almost miraculous - because in his schizophrenia, he hated police officers. Like, it was just this - he just hated police officers. And so he was able to kind of develop a healthy relationship, and he would come back to court when he would need something.

But the funniest thing to me is he would come to court when he was hungry and ask the officers for $5. Like, you know, I'm here for lunch (laughter). And they would make sure that he had lunch. And for me, what was great about that was that it changed the relationship between this person and police and court. So the court was a place that he could come to, and he knew it would be safe. Even if he was in the middle of his hallucinations and potentially would get in trouble for any of that behavior on the street, we knew what was causing him to behave in that way.

GROSS: How workable a solution is that? Like, if all the people with serious mental health problems came to court for free lunches, you wouldn't be able...

PRATT: (Laughter) Well...

GROSS: ...To accommodate them.

PRATT: Well, they come to court anyway. They get arrested. They all get arrested for behave - for yelling and screaming because they're decompensating, so they end up in court (laughter). So if we have them - I mean, one of the biggest problems with the system as it's functioning now is that we are criminalizing social ills, and we are sending people to a court and telling judges to use a criminal justice approach to a social problem. So if you're going to send all the people with mental illness to courts, give judges tools so that they can deal with the problems as they present.

GROSS: Did you sentence this person that you're talking about - the person who you realized was schizophrenic?

PRATT: Did I sentence him to jail?

GROSS: To anything. Like, what was...

PRATT: Yes, he actually got sentenced to the program, and so that's how we were able to get him...

GROSS: So that was the sentence?

PRATT: Yes, the program was the sentence.

GROSS: So getting help was the sentence.

PRATT: Yeah, so they - it's punishment with assistance, right? So punishment is being forced to have to - in their minds, initially, is maybe to have to do community service and being forced to go speak to a counselor. And then they realize that, in fact, the system is helping them.

GROSS: So what kind of community service did this person who had schizophrenia do?

PRATT: Well, in this - in an instance where a person who's so severely - has such severe mental illness, we probably would have converted their community service to more social services, so more meetings with the counselor and getting linked to a nonprofit mental health program in the community.

GROSS: So what was it like for you on the bench? I imagine you had the reputation of being this, like, alternative judge who wanted to treat people humanely. Did you feel like anyone was ever trying to take advantage of that and play you in some way?


ADLER: No one plays Judge Pratt.

PRATT: So my nickname was the - well, you know, known as the tough judge with the big heart. But the community refers to me as Judge Pratt don't play.


PRATT: And I always thought it was a funny thing because what they say about me is she's fair. And what was important is that they were saying it not to me but to individuals who are now coming through the system. She's fair, but she doesn't play. She expects you to do what it is you're required to do.

GROSS: So translate that for me. Like, you require somebody to do community service or social service.


GROSS: How do you keep track of what they're doing, and what kind of positive and negative feedback do you give them?

PRATT: So through - the Center for Court Innovation partnered with the city of Newark and created Newark Community Solutions. And so this is a partnership that they now have with the judiciary in Newark. And so what CCI does is that they come into the communities and say, what does community justice look like for you? They don't come in and impose a model, but they work with the community to say, what do you want justice to look like at a local level for you?

And when they did their surveys amongst the community in Newark, people said, we want these young guys who are on the corner to get jobs. We want the drug addict to get treatment. And so what we have at Newark Municipal Court - we have a team of social workers, case managers, compliance officers who work in the courthouse. So when a person gets picked up and arraigned, they can be sent immediately for services.

And people can walk in off the street and just say, listen, I need to speak to someone. And they can go into this community court clinic and get these services as well. So, again, the court becomes a provider of assistance to the community whether you have a case or not. And for me, what's been really telling, our veterans - as I said, Newark Penn Station is the state's largest unofficial homeless shelter.

And we have veterans who've been addicted to drugs since the Vietnam War who've gotten no assistance. And they get picked up on drug charges. They get picked up on quality-of-life charges from Newark Penn Station. And right before they think they're about to go to jail, they have a judge who says to them thank you for your service. You're going to get an opportunity to do this program. Now, you can do this program, or we can do what the law says to do in every other case, which is give you your jail time.

GROSS: You know, you were saying that you ask people in the community what kind of consequence would you like to see to low-level crime. And it's often, you know, treatment of one sort or another. That reminds me, Julian, of something that you write in your book "Start Here," which is that you make a comparison to gay rights. You say the gay rights movement was really able to expand and succeed more once more people came out of the closet.

And people began to realize, oh, I know somebody who I really like, and they're gay. So maybe I can't hate gay people, or maybe I can't stereotype the way that I did before. And with people in communities where they know people who've been in prison, they don't see the prisoner as the other. It's like your brother, your neighbor, your friend. Like, you know these people, that you can't just kind of discard them and treat them as - yeah, as the other.

ADLER: Yeah, it reminds me of something that Judge Alex Calabrese, who sits in the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn - who we write about in the book - always says that he's animated by the idea that everyone who comes in the courtroom is a member of the community - before they have a case, during their case, after their case, regardless of the outcome of the case and certainly any relatives or support people who come into the courtroom on behalf of a defendant. And it's a complete paradigm shift from the way that not only the criminal justice system tends to treat individuals with criminal histories but the way society does. And I think it goes to the heart of both dismantling mass incarceration as well as really changing the punitive texture of criminal justice intervention.

GROSS: So Julian, we've heard some about the Newark project, which your group founded in conjunction with the city of Newark. Your group, the Center for Court Innovation, has other kind of experimental projects in different parts of the country. Tell us about another project that your group helps operate that's different from the one that Judge Pratt presided over.

ADLER: So one other program that the Center for Court Innovation runs is citywide supervised release in New York City in three boroughs. So in Brooklyn, the Bronx and on Staten Island, the Center for Court Innovation is providing an alternative to the traditional binary of jail or release. For a lot of defendants or for a decent swath of defendants, judges may not be comfortable releasing them on their own recognizance to the community while a case is pending but would like an alternative to jail or setting money bail.

And what supervised release offers is supervision as well as voluntary social and clinical services for individuals and, therefore, giving judges an added level of assurance that an individual will return on their court date. And citywide supervised release is being used in cases involving misdemeanors but also in cases involving felonies. And it's been incredibly effective both in ensuring that individuals return to court as well as avoiding reinvolvement, rearrest, contact with the criminal justice system.

GROSS: I have two guests. Judge Victoria Pratt is the former chief judge of Newark's municipal court. She also presided over Newark Community Solutions. She's now a professor at Rutgers University Law School. Julian Adler is the director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation, and he's co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration." We'll talk more after a break, and Ken Tucker will review the new album by the band the Internet. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with my two guests. Judge Victoria Pratt - she's the former chief judge of Newark's municipal court and presided over Newark Community Solutions, a community court program providing alternative sentences to low-level offenders. It's run by the city of Newark in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based nonprofit that works to reform the justice system. The center's director for policy and research, Julian Adler, is also joining us. He's the co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration."

So Judge Pratt, I know one of the kinds of alternative sentences that you've given some of the defendants who have come before you is to write a personal essay...


GROSS: ...And sometimes to read it themselves out loud. Tell us your thinking behind that as a sentence.

PRATT: So I believe that all the answers we're looking for lie within us. And so as a part of their sentence, yes, they get these essays. But they are these essays that require them to go on the inside. And so they'll get an essay - if I believed one positive thing about myself, how would my life be different? A letter to my son, a letter to my daughter where I see myself in five years.

And what's interesting is that by merely giving them the essay, it's asking them the question. And nobody has bothered to even ask them the question or any questions about themselves to get them to think about, why am I here? And so I remember one essay I gave to a woman, which was, if I knew then what I know now, how would my life be different? And she started her essay with, I've been suffering with a fatal disease for 24 years. And because of the diagnosis, I lost all hope. And she goes into how she then became - began to use drugs and became addicted to heroin and, you know, just pretty much had dug this hole for herself.

And after she read the first sentence I made a note and when she was done it was a beautifully written essay. I said to her, do you know that you beat that disease in the first - 23 years ago? And she looked at me. I said, you've been telling yourself the wrong story about who you are in your own story because, in fact, she was the victor because you can't have a fatal disease for 25 years. She had, in fact, stayed here longer than she was supposed to.

And she looked at me. And it was almost for the first time that she had ever really had had that thought about who she was, that she wasn't a victim to all of the stuff that was going on around her. And she began to cry - and not really crying because she felt bad for herself but that she hadn't seen who she was. And again, I felt that it was just a cathartic exercise for her but also for the people in the audience who were listening. And so much of it - sometimes, I say, it's not just that I want to know your business. It's that I want you to deal with this.

Sometimes, people start their essay, and they're angry with me. I don't know why Judge Pratt told me to write this. Blah, blah, blah, blah. And by the time they end their essay, it says, oh, I now understand why she made me do this. And I knew it was a good thing when, sometimes, I'd be finished with someone, and they say, oh, I don't get an essay? I don't get assigned an essay? And I'm like, oh, OK.

GROSS: Do you ever assign an essay and then learn that somebody is illiterate?

PRATT: Oh, yes. But we have some methods for figuring out because it's happened before, right? So, sometimes, the person will protest. Or they come, and they won't write it. They, like, just refuse to straight out write the essay. So typically, what we've done is trained the police officers - that if they see the person protesting a little bit when I'm giving the essay, the officer will go over and just whisper, like, do you have any difficulty with writing? And maybe they'll tell - and so they'll either tell them or the social workers when they get upstairs. And we'll just do away with the essay.

And one day, we had a young man have this issue. And he was in the hallway. And he was like, I'm just going to go to jail because I'm not doing this stupid essay. And one of the older defendants went up to him and said, man, that doesn't make any sense. And they sat in the hallway. And he wrote it with him. And when he was - when it was time to read it out loud, I had the older gentleman who was also there on his own case stand with him to read the essay for him. And, you know, it was so rewarding not just for the young man but also for the older man who was able to give back to this young guy in that way.

So it just - you know, to me, it was just community building. And when people read their essays, they are so proud of themselves. You know, sometimes, I laugh because I'm like, oh, they must have an essay today because they're a little dressed up, right? Or they bring someone. They might bring Mom. Or they'll bring a girlfriend or a friend to hear them read this essay. And I'm like, wow. That's because we've seen you.

ADLER: And what's so powerful, having observed this a number of times sitting in Judge Pratt's courtroom, is it humanizes everyone...


ADLER: ...Certainly the defendant. But also, as you heard in that example, you know, you have court officers who are typically thinking about safety and security actually taking an interest in literacy...


ADLER: ...And offering a helping hand...

PRATT: Oh, yeah.

ADLER: ...Or a defendant, you know, feeling pride...


ADLER: ...And bringing individuals to the courtroom. And it's interesting how, over time, that affects not only the behavior of defendants but also prosecutors...

PRATT: Absolutely.

ADLER: ...Defense attorneys and, you know, court officers both in your courtroom and in the courthouse in general.

PRATT: No, absolutely. I mean, when - a defendant will begin to read an essay. And, sometimes, I'll notice a prosecutor who's got like 20 people coming. And they'll stop, and they'll start listening and looking at this person like, wow, there was so much more to this person than just what was before us - because that's one of the problems of the criminal justice system. They require the judge, the prosecutor and the public - they want us to look at a person and make decisions about their lives based on one incident, based on that one thing that's before us and not the circumstances leading up to that.

And so for me as Julian's point, which I think really needs emphasizing, is how it changes the relationships between the individuals in the courtroom but particularly how it influences the people sitting in the audience. And that's why I think procedural justice is so powerful because it has such a wide reach. It's not just about the person who's standing before me but the person that they came with, the person who's waiting to come, the person who's waiting to see someone who's in custody. They develop an opinion about how it's going to go for them or their family members based on how they see other people being treated.

And that begins with walking into the courtroom. If the officer is like, oh, good morning. Let me see your paperwork. And people are being helpful - then it puts them at ease. And they think, well, you know what? They might at least - maybe the judge will at least listen when my son goes up. Or maybe...

GROSS: Well this gets - this gets back to a premise that you write about in the book, Julian, which is that if the criminal justice system shows some respect for the people who come before it, then the people who enter the criminal justice system are more likely to respect the law and the people who are enforcing the law.

ADLER: Absolutely. And in the process, which is so striking, listening to Judge Pratt is that it - part of what's happening - there are, let's say, individuals who are coming before a court and seeing the judge and other court personnel as sort of legitimate authority figures. But also, those authority figures are acting differently and are, as we argue, reconnecting with whatever it was that drove them to a career of public service and social justice, which often gets lost in the daily grind of working in a place like The Deuce.

PRATT: Yeah.

GROSS: So, Judge Pratt, I just want to ask you about - going back to the essay for a second. Say somebody - say you sentence somebody with having to write a personal essay, and you've given them a theme. And they come back with something that isn't really very reflective or is just filled with cliches that they've just kind of, you know, linked together.

PRATT: So you've been to court before (laughter)?

GROSS: Yeah. So what do you do with that? Do you say, that's not good enough; now you're going to jail?

ADLER: She sure does.

PRATT: No, no, she doesn't.

ADLER: I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I'm kidding.

PRATT: Didn't I tell you they say Judge Pratt don't play? Go into the hallway. So - because there's a sanction for that. So you either - you get to go in the hallway and rewrite your essay, or you face additional days in the program. And so there's always - someone's like, oh, you know, this idea, but this idea that I have an expectation. I gave you something. Your record says, send you to jail upon sight. And what you got instead was an opportunity to do this program and get yourself some assistance.

So now I have an expectation that you are going to do exactly what's required of you. So typically, I mean, people end up - they'll go into the hallway, roll their eyes, suck their teeth, but they'll come back out with an essay. But they respect this process. They respect this process that this is a part of their sentence. But they - you know, I haven't had to send someone to jail because they didn't write an essay.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guests are Judge Victoria Pratt, who was the chief judge at Newark Municipal Court and presided over Newark Community Solutions, which is a community court. She's now a professor at Rutgers. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, I have two guests. Judge Victoria Pratt was the chief judge at Newark Municipal Court and presided over Newark Community Solutions, which provided alternatives to jail for many low-level offenders. She's now a professor teaching restorative justice and problem-solving at Rutgers University Law School. Also with me is Julian Adler. He's the co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration." He's the director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation, where he leads the work on national criminal justice reform projects.

Judge Pratt, was there ever a time you gave somebody an alternative sentence, like social services or community work or all that and an essay as well, and you ended up regretting it because they committed maybe a more - like, a violent act after that and you wished that you had sent them to jail instead of giving them an alternative sentence?

PRATT: Well, I can't say specifically a violent act. But I can say that I understand that I do not work in a vacuum. You know, we work with people. And we're trying to change their behavior with mandates and with a few days of community service. And then they still have to go back into in many instances an environment that is breeding some of the poor behavior that they engage in. And so, yes, there have been instances that I'm like, ah, you know, I gave them - I threw everything at them that I had.

And there are times that I've given a person a program and they haven't been successful, and then they've gotten their jail sentence. And it's been - maybe three years later, they come through the system again. And I'm like, well, listen; the program doesn't work for you. So every time I see you, you know your sentence has to be jail. And then at some point they go, I think I'm ready, judge. Sometimes it happens a lot with people who suffer from addiction. You know, we're dealing with people who've been addicted to heroin for 15, 20 years. And they have to be ready.

Sometimes it helps when the judge is like, I remember you, and I remember every conversation we have. And so there is a consequence. I think that in terms of the four principles of procedural justice - voice, understand, neutrality and respect - I'm very good at making sure people understand. But it's also understanding the consequences. So sometimes people get, you know, procedural justice twisted. Oh, this is about touchy-feely. This is about making sure people understand the process, the consequences of the process and what is expected of them. And that's where accountability comes in.

ADLER: What's interesting about that question is, again, you know, if Judge Pratt sentenced someone to jail at Newark Community Solutions, the jail sentence would be relatively short. And what we know both from research and experience is that jail is certainly not a place where any of the problems that are driving criminal behavior are going to be addressed meaningfully. And risk is certainly not going to be mitigated.

So there is this tendency, you know, generally when someone commits a serious crime after they've been released by a judge or sentenced to something other than jail or prison to hold the judge accountable because they didn't incarcerate the individual. Logically it kind of breaks down when you think about, you know, what would have incarceration done outside of whatever limited incapacitation benefit there was? And again, in the case of jail, most jail sentences are relatively short.

PRATT: And back to Julian's point, there are so many things that need to be happening in the community when you are really trying to restore order to communities. And we know that just - we're not going to jail our way out of this problem that we have, and that poverty and people who are exposed to violence - it increases, you know, their chances of engaging and being engaged in the criminal justice system, so also focusing on some of those things as well.

I mean, it's great that we have a community court that we can also send people to job training or to - this is how you go get a job because we're assisting the community in that way as well. What's powerful to me is when people don't have cases, and we have built a relationship with the court.

And right before they get themselves in trouble, they come down to the courthouse to kind of talk about, I was thinking about doing this, but I don't know, or I need help doing this. And before I go down to DMV and get frustrated and yell and scream, let me come here and ask the judge or ask the police officer, see what help I can get. And as I've seen, people just come and sit in the back of the courtroom because it's a safe space for them, that they can come into the courthouse and not feel like something terrible is going to happen to them.

GROSS: We're in a time now where there seems to be some bipartisan support for prison reform. Even, like, the Koch brothers, who are known as being, like, very conservative, they're supporting some prison reform projects, right?

ADLER: Yeah. It's an exciting time. We are seeing bipartisan reform. As we point out in the book, though, because at the federal level, particularly under the current administration, it's often a bit opaque in terms of making sense of what the crime policy is and whether the crime policy is moving in a direction that's more reminiscent of tough on crime or not, the good news is that most of the action and the hope around ending the crisis of mass incarceration is at the local level, at the state level, the county level.

You know, one major driver of mass incarceration that has received less attention until the MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety And Justice Challenge and really drew attention to it is the fact that jails, local jails, are the gateway to mass incarceration, that in any year we see 12 million admissions to jails. At any given moment, there are half a million individuals languishing in jails, waiting for their cases to be processed.

It's important to note that these are individuals who are still legally innocent until proven guilty under our constitutional system and are often sitting in jail - returning to the theme at the start of the show - because they couldn't afford to pay money bail. To reduce the jail population is a local issue. It's not driven by federal policy. To reduce the state prison population - these are local issues on the state level, on the county level. And so there is bipartisan support. But even if your listeners are skeptical about bipartisan action at the federal level, you could shutter the federal criminal justice system tomorrow and still have mass incarceration in the United States.

GROSS: Julian Adler, Judge Pratt, thank you so much for talking with us.

ADLER: Thank you.

PRATT: Thank you for having us.

GROSS: Judge Victoria Pratt is now a professor at Rutgers University Law School. Julian Adler is director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation and co-author of the new book "Start Here: A Roadmap To Reducing Mass Incarceration." After a break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by the band The Internet. This is FRESH AIR.


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