Courtrooms are Dehumanizing and Toxic. But Judges Can Change Their Space.

"The language of courtroom proceedings also works to otherize and separate these people from their humanity."

As a public defender, I spent a lot of time in one of the most dreaded places on Earth: the courthouse. With a few happy exceptions, people don’t choose to go to court. Most are there mounting desperate fights for their housing, their kids, their freedom. And as a result, courthouses are filled with individuals who are frightened, angry, and unhappy.

It’s not hard to understand why court makes so many people feel this way. Courtrooms are the frontline of a system that deals in pain and loss, and nearly every norm enforced within them sacrifices the humanity of the participants for the comfort of the employees. On any given day in court, you can find mostly white attorneys sitting in the front row of the courtroom, chatting and tapping away at their phones, while their mostly Black and brown clientele sits in the back rows, prohibited from speaking, eating, looking at their phones, or even reading. At every stage of the process, the people in the back rows are silenced and at the mercy of their lawyers, who sometimes do — and sometimes do not — listen to them and manage to powerfully share their story.

The language of courtroom proceedings also works to otherize and separate these people from their humanity. On my first day working arraignments in the Bronx, I’ll never forget hearing court officers calling for “bodies” to be delivered from their “pens” to the courtroom. Accused people, including my clients, were literally being treated like livestock. I quickly realized that so much of the legal lexicon — from “inmate” or “defendant,” to “custody” and “corrections” — serves to sanitize and formalize this dehumanization, while stripping the emotion out of the violence, caging, and deprivation that’s actually taking place.

In recent years, the legal community has championed “procedural justice” as a response to the system’s pervasive dehumanization. This is the idea that people going through the legal system should emerge feeling that they were treated fairly. But in courthouses, procedural justice all too often manifests as superficial politeness by judges who nevertheless go on to make extremely cruel decisions. Every public defender has experienced the conspicuously courteous judge who shows up to court hours late, but won’t think twice about jailing someone for being two minutes behind schedule because their car broke down and they had to walk to court from another city. If you’re needlessly jailing my client, I frankly don’t care if you’re polite while doing it.

Despite those shortcomings, judges are perhaps best situated to combat the legal system’s dehumanization. But to do this, they must go beyond the veneer of “procedural justice” and commit to the radical humanization of the people whose cases they rule on. At the most basic level, this could mean pushing back on dehumanizing language and conduct in the courtroom. But judges truly interested in setting their own comfort aside and incorporating radical humanization into their practice could also begin seeking additional information about the people who come before them, so that they could better understand them as human beings — rather than just cases.

The task of humanizing people within the criminal legal system, in other words, doesn’t have to be left up to lawyers. Judges have the power to ask simple questions that can reveal, to some extent, the truth and lived experience of the people whose lives they may irrevocably change. These can be simple questions — How are you doing? What would you be doing if you weren’t here today? Where do you hope to be six months from now? Who do you live with or take care of? What keeps you up at night? These questions, especially when combined with an awareness of the challenges most litigants face, can equip judges with critical information to make better, more informed decisions.

The organization I co-founded, Partners for Justice, studied what happened when we provided judges with humanizing information (known as “mitigation”), which weaves a person’s background, current struggles and opportunities, and future prospects into a narrative for the court. The results were striking — almost 80 percent of people who presented this kind of information got their felony charges dropped or dismissed, a 43 percent increase over people who did not. Over the course of 68 of these cases, total jail time was reduced by about 23 years. In other words, judges (and prosecutors) make better, more restorative decisions when they’re encouraged to see people as people.

Radical humanization is even more important when you consider racial disparities in the system. While the vast majority of people who end up in court are Black and brown, the legal profession itself is shockingly white: Only about 4 percent of lawyers identify as Black and only another 4 percent as Latinx. The statistics on the bench aren’t much better. In most cases, this means a white judge will be making life-altering decisions about a person who carries a completely different lived experience. The result is an implicit division: It’s easy to humanize the person standing on the other side of the court when they look like your sister, your daughter, your mother. It’s harder when your impression of that person is inevitably molded by unconscious biases sharpened by life experience as a white judge atop the criminal legal system.

But if judges are going to willingly embrace radical humanization, they must first be open to seeing the full humanity of the people in their courtrooms. And that’s where the real difficulty lies. Because while this dehumanization has horrible consequences for the people being punished, it also shields judges and prosecutors from feeling the full weight of passing down those punishments.

It would understandably be difficult to fully absorb the humanity of a person, before telling them that you’re taking their children from them, removing them from their home, or putting them in a cage. But it should be difficult. Thousands of ordinary people’s lives are destroyed in court each day. The people pulling the levers of this system shouldn’t be exempt from feeling its impact. In fact, only by putting aside personal comfort and being willing to feel that weight can judges and prosecutors make truly just and good decisions.

Emily Galvin Almanza is the co-founder and co-Executive Director of Partners for Justice and a former public defender.

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