Buber in Brookline

Photo by flickr user tidewatermuse

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

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.


9 thoughts on “Buber in Brookline

  1. Thank You Ron, There is so much more going on in the small rooms where CLTL sessions are run all over the world, than literature. Don’t get me wrong I love talking about books and the effect they can have, but it is refreshing to consider some of the other things going on in these rooms. The “I and Thou” conversation begins when an individual is identified as a potential candidate for CLTL.

    Let’s face it. As much as we “insiders” think of CLTL, it is not usually the first choice on the menu. Counseling, halfway houses, methadone treatment, anger management, drug court, electric monitoring, and jail are all higher on the list. Especially in the busier courts, I think it is easy to get into a let’s get them in and get them out rhythm. “We’ve got cases to move people”. You beat a guy up, anger management for you. You were arrested for selling cocaine, counseling for you. (Even if you don’t use, but sell drugs and CLTL would be far more beneficial)

    To place or refer a person to CLTL, someone has to have a dialogue with someone, to see if they are appropriate for the program. Right of the bat, this is different for most of our clients. A Probation Officer asks about their reading ability. The PO wants to know something about the individual other than crime and punishment. Most of the people I’ve referred over the years tell me they felt special just for being selected.

    Ron’s comments about the level playing field between Probationers, Judges, Professors and Probation Officers while behind those doors, should not be underestimated. Let’s go back to the court room. I notice a huge difference in the attitude of the Probationer if they leave court having had a direct dialogue with the Judge. Some times it is positive. A Judge saying something like, I can see you’ve taken positive steps to help your self by getting a job or going to counseling on your own, so I will not send you to jail but offer Probation. Even a negative approach, is better than ignoring the person while the lawyers decide their fate. I’ve seen Judges look a defendant in the eye and say, I’ll give you Probation but I’m going to retain this case. If you come back before me it won’t go so well next time. Any acknowledgement from the bench means I’m a person. Someone cares about me. Even negative attention is better than no attention.

    In my spin off musical version of CLTL, I get a few minutes of grace from the people I am with because they are surprised a Probation Officer would even care enough to take time to address them. I still have to bring some substance to the discussion or I would be quickly found out as a phony, but just the fact that I am willing to address them as humans, who have ups and downs like all of us, cuts me quite a bit of slack. It is easier not to engage because to engage you have to feel. You don’t have to go home and ask yourself if you made the right decision. Life is messy and you don’t always want to hear the answers to the questions you ask. We still need to ask. Sometimes it is difficult to reach out but when you do everyone wins. Thanks again Ron, for pointing out an aspect of CLTL that is often overlooked. The discussions and literature are important but a lot more is going on in those rooms.

  2. Ron: Thanks for the post here. It’s important and written with grace. And I think Buber is the perfect person to cite in this context.Through CLTL and elsewhere, judges and probation officers (Wayne being a good example) do often engage with offenders in the kind of exchange that Buber had in mind. But I am an unrepentant idealist, I guess, so I have to ask: Can we ever reach a time when the roles in this “courtroom procedure” are reversed: when the “judger” becomes” the judged,” for example –or when the “procedure” becomes “a genuine relationship.” Levinas, a French philosopher, very much in the tradition of Buber, suggests that we must always approach the “other” with the notion that we are more guilty than she or he is. When we do that, it is very difficult not to acknowledge that the one we judge is always ourselves. Thanks so much, Ron, for a thoughtful essay here.

  3. Dear Ron Corbett,

    I absolutely agree with everything you say and say so well, clearly and thoughtfully. There is one more relationship not mentioned here — that is the one between the probationer/students in each class with each other. Students come in not knowing each other’s names. Slowly they learn them, slowly they learn about each other and how not to judge each other. For example, the woman whose English isn’t so good may be the one with the inspiring story that makes the whole class (POs, judges, facilitators included) sit up and take notice.

    Traditionally, the strength of a woman comes from other women, not in sticking it out alone. So in the women’s class that I teach at Dorchester Court I think this aspect of the I-Thou relationship is very important. I love to watch it unfold.

  4. CLTL establishes a set of connections between individuals when they sit together to discuss great works of literature. The judge and the probationers, the PO and the probationers, the professor and the class, and the members of the class with one another. One story I really enjoyed from last year’s conference was Joe Deever’s. Joe shared that he drove the students for a weekly CLTL session. They were quiet, pensive and perhaps a bit somber the first week. Yet within a few weeks they were singing and laughing on those drives. Tam is right, this classroom’s student community is important too.

    Such a great post, Ron. CLTL is a humanizing force for individuals who may have lost their sense of agency for whatever reason.

  5. Down here in Texas, the country in which we are “tough” on crime and criminals, we have 156,000 prison inmates and 356 folks on Death Row. Very few judges are willing to take the time to establish a non-judgemental relationship with offenders. I continue to teach two CLTL classes a year at a local college and a female instructor does the same with women. On my own, I attempt to establish the kind of dialogue Ron discusses via Buber and I am always pleased with the extent to which a class of 10-12 guys are willing to expose their lives to the group. My Ph.D. is in philosophy and the readings which produce some lively discussions are The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Epictetus the Stoic philosopher, Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates and J.S. Mill On Liberty.
    Although a significant number of judges and directors of adult probation departments in Texas have attended presentations about CLTL, Brazoria County is the only place in the state where it is available. This is a major regret for me and I applaud the judges in the northeast and elsewhere who advocate a different view of the meaning of “justice.”

  6. Thank you all for your insightful comments. The standard tools of social science could not possibly capture the nuanced dynamics you each describe – which makes sharing and recording your observations so important.

  7. To put a further twist on your last comment here, Ron, you might be interested to know that over the past few years, I have encouraged some of the sociologists at our university to use short stories iand novels in their classes to get at some of the central issues they want to pursue as teachers of social scientists.They report that the stories work welll in this context, often allowing the class to probe the full complexity of the social issues in a profound way.

  8. Bob –

    If I may be immodest enough to reference myself, I tried to make a similar argument years ago in a piece entitled “Novel Perspectives: Fiction as Sociology” which appeared in the journal “Sociological Forum”. It was provoked by my use of the novel “Slow Motion Riot” in a course on Community Corrections. Writers really are the world’s unacknowledged ( except in CLTL!) sociologists.

  9. Ron,
    I wonder how trusting are most accused felons of the alleged equality between themselves, judges and other members of the criminal justice bureaucracy. The judge may assert he is their friend and wants to help them, but they understand he has the power to lock them up, and therefore they better tell him wants to hear. How do visions like Buber’s “I and Thou” function when there is such enormous power disparities between “I” and “Thou?” One of the first edicts of the powerful is usually that the victims never question their benign intentions. Even if they send you to jail or the nut house, their goal is to rehabilitate you, to help you to adjust, to cure of your mental illness or your criminality (often seen as a form of mental illness). If you question their good motives, that is a sign that there is something wrong with you. If in an insanity hearing, the patient accuses the psychiatrist, “You are trying to lock me up,” he will be diagnosed as paranoid and locked up.

    In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a mock judge rules, “I find you perfectly innocent and that is the worst crime of all; so, you are going to hang.” Being innocent is indeed the worst crime of all, No, the worst crime of all is questioning authority, including professing innocence when they declared you guilty. Once imprisoned, it is virtually impossible to be paroled if you insist you are innocent. Arnold Schwarzenegger executed Tookie Williams because he failed to show sufficient remorse by not admitting guilt.

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