by Ronald P. Corbett, Jr.
1975. Brookline Municipal Court, MA. Juvenile session. Late afternoon. Veteran street worker Dave Wizansky approaches a recently appointed probation officer. “Ron, I think this new judge is really going to make a difference. He approaches the cases in a very different way. Did you notice how he always addressees the juvenile directly? That rarely happens. These kids are used to being talked about, or at, or around. They are not used to be talked ‘to’. And that is what Judge Shubow does.”
1995. Henderson House, Weston, MA. A meeting of judges, probations officers, and educators involved in or supporting Changing Lives Through Literature. Each participant is asked to offer a reflection on the program and its power. A probation administrator mentions how empowering it is for probationers to sit with judges and educators and get treated as equals at the discussion table.
2005. University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA. A graduate class in criminal justice. A judge and staff from Ayer District Court discuss the workings of their drug court. The probation officer coordinating the program suggests that the attention from the judge and the heart-to-heart communications that take place each week between judge and drug court participant account for much of the program’s effectiveness.
Each of these vignettes strikes a common theme and illustrates a basic truth about the latent–and commonly overlooked–power of relationships in the administration of justice. In these examples, the relationship implicated is that between the “judger” and the “judged.”
What is this talk of relationships? Our judicial system requires that the judge distance himself/herself from individual defendants. This is a proceeding, not a “relationship”! Professionalism and objective decision making rules out any sort of relationship. And yet…
Could it be that judges themselves can be instruments of transformation? That their way of relating to–even more, being with–offenders can act, in the language of social science, as an independent variable, impacting outcomes for offenders under the court’s supervision?
I think so. Beyond the details of a sentence or the particulars of probation conditions and treatment requirements, there are–inescapably–relationships. Scores of interviews over the years with ex-probationers have taught me how discerning they are about how they were treated by judges, probation officers, and treatment staff. Were they alive to these officials? Was attention paid to them and their individual circumstances? Would anyone remember their name? These were their worries.
For me, CLTL’s magic lies in the wholly unconventional relationship it establishes among court (and university) officials and offenders. The CLTL discussion table literally levels the playing field. The judge is looking across–and not down–at the probationers. The judge and probation officer are listening to and valuing their views. It is a dialogue for which there is no time in our customary interactions.
Martin Buber would be pleased. Buber, philosopher and educator in the first half of the 20th century, taught at the University of Frankfurt and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His preeminent work was an essay entitled “I and Thou,” an examination of the way human beings encounter and engage with each other. In what Buber called “I –It” relationships, other people were objectified, treated as means to an end, communicated with, characteristically, in a monologue. Each group was blind to the other’s essence.
In “I-Thou” relationships, mutuality and receptivity to the other prevail; it is an encounter without prejudice, without gain or utility in mind. It is characterized by genuine dialogue.
Perhaps Dave Wizansky had read Martin Buber.
Ronald P. Corbett, Jr. is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He has taught on a part-time basis since 1979 and currently serves as Adjunct Professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, teaching in the graduate program.