Two years ago, Judge Victoria Pratt ‘98 came to Rutgers Law School as the guest speaker for the annual Weintraub Lecture, and shared her vision of criminal justice reform to a packed crowd that included law professors, students and community leaders.
This month, Pratt, who is now teaching at the law school, was able to share that message with a much larger audience. Her TED Talk presentation launched November 10 and focused on lessons she learned as the Chief Judge of the Newark Municipal Court. She also presided over Newark Community Solutions, a Community Court program at Newark Municipal Court. She served as a judge from 2009 to 2017.
In the first 10 days after it went live, her talk got a half a million views.
“I began speaking around the idea that the system has to do better,” she said. “The court can play a significant role in changing people’s behavior.”
Pratt, who was born in Newark and raised in Montclair, graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick as an undergraduate and worked for La Casa de Don Pedro, a non-profit agency in Newark before attending Rutgers Law School and graduating in 1998.
Though she had internships with advocacy agencies including the ACLU and the American Friends Service Committee, after graduation she clerked for the Hon. Better J. Lester, worked for an insurance defense firm and in the white collar crime unit of Day Pitney.
Pratt began volunteering in municipal politics in law school and was later hired by then-Gov. Jim McGreevey to work as Assistant Counsel in the Governor’s Office. She then served as the compliance officer for the Camden City School District. She also did a stint as counsel to the Office of the President for the Newark Municipal Counsel, before being named a municipal judge by then-Mayor Cory Booker.
After working in traffic court, Pratt was moved to criminal court part 2, which she explained was an undesirable assignment for most judges, since they saw a revolving door of people arrested for low-level crimes. At the same time Pratt was transferred, the city began a Community Court pilot project, that sought to match people arrested with needed services – such as mental health assessment, treatment for addiction, and job resources.
Pratt – as she explains in her talk – changed the culture of her courtroom and trained the court staff, attorneys and police officers to change how they engaged court participants. She said she talked to the people appearing in court with respect, made sure they understood the charges against them, the consequences, what was expected of them, and asked them to do non-traditional tasks as part of their rehabilitation, such as writing essays about their lives.
“I wanted to shift the culture of the court,” she said, adding that she worked with a resource coordinator, staff of social workers, and case managers to get services for those arrested. They included low-level offenders, such as prostitutes, addicts, homeless people and members of other marginalized communities.
Pratt’s work began to get attention. She was written about in an article in The Guardian and subsequently invited to England to speak at an international panel about alternative sentencing. She presented on a panel at the White House, was also invited to meet former President Obama during his announcement of his criminal justice reform initiatives that took place in Newark. In addition, Pratt has spoken about restorative justice to judges from Israel, Chile, Ghana and throughout the United States.
She said she decided to step down from the bench to continue her work on criminal justice reform and restorative justice and to influence young lawyers. This semester, she is teaching a course on it at Rutgers Law, called, “Restorative Justice and Problem-Solving Justice.”
Pratt said, “There’s a lot of work to be done. I’m excited about the ability to teach young minds, those people going into the (criminal justice) system and developing criminal justice reformers who will not be afraid to approach the administration and dispensation of justice with a fresh lens.”