Aug 24, 2011

The "Secret Ingredient": Why Respectful Judging Matters

Today's New York Law Journal published an Op-ed by Center for Court Innovation's (CCI) Director, Greg Berman, and Research Director, Mike Rempel, entitled "Judges Matter: How Courts Reduce Crime and Save Money."  The Op-ed describes a study, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Urban Institute, CCI, and RTI International, that finds that "drug court participants are one-third less likely to report using drugs 18 months after enrollment in the program, and that they are responsible for less than half as many criminal acts as the comparison group after 18 months." Such reductions in criminal behavior are estimated to save approximately $5,680 per participant. What is the "secret ingredient" to why drug courts work?

It's in the judge, so the research demonstrates. "When participants believe that the judge treats them fairly, they do better. . .When offenders understand the process, feel that they've been treated with respect and believe that their voice has been heard in court, they are more likely to accept court decisions-even ones that go against them. . . The most effective judges were those whose demeanor was independently rated by researchers as respectful, fair, attentive, enthusiastic, consistent, and caring.  This finding is echoed by other studies that have suggested that the role of the judge is just as critical to defendants' success as the provision of treatment."

Up at the Harlem Community Justice Center, one of CCI's projects, we have applied this key concept to our Reentry Court.  In the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, individuals under community supervision (i.e. on parole), regularly meet with a judge, his/her parole officer, a graduate of the program, and a case manager. Although the setting, a traditional court room,  is familiar to the client, the interaction is anything less than typical. The judge asks the client about his life, his struggles, his successes. He asks about his children and his interests. He has the court clap for him when he does well, and speaks compassionately when he struggles. He warns him respectfully about potential consequences of non-compliance, and if he supports the parole officer in mandating the client to a new program or for an evaluation, he explains why.  He also gets off the bench at the end of each session and  pats the client on the back.    

No doubt, the drug court study has important implications for all courts. As the Op-ed states, "It offers powerful ammunition to legislative and executive branch leaders who are currently attempting to trim correctional spending and invest in alternatives to incarceration like drug courts...For judicial leaders, the drug court study poses a challenge: Is it possible to spread some of the basic elements of drug court judging-a problem solving orientation, individualized attention to each case, an emphasis on respectful interaction with defendants-throughout court systems?"