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The Honorable Victoria Pratt to deliver EMU's MLK Day keynote address on Monday with optimism 'The Dream' can be achieved

Victoria Pratt
Eastern Michigan University
Victoria Pratt


The Black and Latina daughter of a working-class family, Victoria Pratt learned to treat everyone with dignity, no matter their background. When she became Newark Municipal Court’s chief judge, she knew well the inequities that poor, mentally ill, Black, and brown people faced in the criminal justice system.

Judge Victoria has gained national and international acclaim for her commitment to reform the criminal justice system. As the Chief Judge in Newark Municipal Court in Newark, New Jersey, she spent years gaining a deep understanding of how justice could be delivered to individuals in a manner that increased their trust in the legal system and changed their behavior. While presiding over Newark Community Solutions, the Community Court Program, she used creative problem solving to provide alternatives to jail to low-level offenders.

She’s been called a pioneer in procedural justice—a simple, proven approach to transforming our court system using the power of dignity and respect. She has worked with jurisdictions across the nation, and as far as Dubai, Ukraine, England, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico. Her viral TED Talk, How Judges Can Show Respect, has been translated into 11 languages, has over one million views and a Facebook clip with an astounding 28 million views.

Judge Pratt’s work has been featured in The Guardian in an article titled “The Simple Idea that Could Transform U.S. Criminal Justice,” and she’s appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry Show, the Emmy-award winning PBS show Due Process—Community Court: A Kinder, Gentler Way? and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Her book, The Power of Dignity: How Transforming Justice Can Heal Our Communities, was published in 2022 with a foreword from Senator Cory Booker.

She now champions criminal justice reform through her role as Executive Director at Odyssey Impact, and her consulting firm Pratt Lucien Consultants, LLC, advising federal, state and local governments in the U.S. and internationally on restoring respect to their processes. Previously a full-time Professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice and a frequent visiting professor at Rutgers Law School, Judge Pratt has served as chair of the advisory board of the Center for Court Innovation since 2018. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rutgers Law School-Newark, Pratt is licensed to practice in New Jersey, New York and to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.


EMU's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

EMU's MLK Day Keynote Speaker: Victoria Pratt

EMU's MLK Day Schedule of Events

"The Power of Dignity: How Transforming Justice Can Heal Our Communities" by Victoria Pratt

The Honorable Victoria Pratt’s Ted Talk


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. On Monday, the nation will mark Doctor Martin Luther King Junior day. It was in August of 1963, the Reverend King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall in Washington. The theme of this year's celebrations at Eastern Michigan University is "Driven by the Dream." The keynote address at the annual President's Luncheon on Monday will be delivered by the Honorable Victoria Pratt. The former chief judge of Newark Municipal Courts in New Jersey is internationally renowned for her efforts to transform the judicial system. Her book, "The Power of Dignity," makes the case that transforming justice will heal our communities. Judge Pratt delivered a Ted Talk called "How Judges Can Show Respect," and that's garnered over 1.2 million views. And she now serves as executive director of Odyssey Impact. It's a nonprofit with the stated mission of building awareness, changing attitudes, and inspiring actions to drive social change. Judge Pratt, it is a pleasure to talk with you.

Victoria Pratt: It is a pleasure to be here with you. I am so excited to be a part of this celebration, which is clear it means so much to Eastern Michigan University.

David Fair: Well, what does MLK Day mean to you?

Victoria Pratt: Well, it just means it is so interesting. Without disclosing my age, I'm old enough to remember not having an official MLK day, but celebrating Doctor King's birthday as I was growing up, and it was always such a special day because of so many of the principles that resonated with me, even as a young child. And so, that we, as a whole, now celebrate this holiday, understanding that Doctor King is an American holiday, and not just the holiday for Black people, is especially important.

David Fair: I'm always interested in why people choose to do what they do in their professional lives. Clearly, justice, in the manner in which it is put forth, is of vital importance to you. When you were growing up, did you and your family have experiences that you would consider unjust?

Victoria Pratt: Absolutely, absolutely. And it's amazing how you can take those experiences to really fuel your ambition to just ensure either that other people don't experience it or to correct it. And, for me, I became very passionate about ensuring people received fairness. My mother said early on, "Oh, she's very talkative, so I guess she'll be a judge, or you'll be a lawyer." And I always thought that it was funny, but I felt myself early in life being an advocate for my mother, who primarily spoke Spanish. And being the child of a first generation immigrant and an African-American father. It was really important that I learned to not only stand up for myself, but also to stand up for my mother when things were happening that were unfair. So, yes, it just comes from a history of seeing injustice and also being the English-speaking child of a parent. That meant I also had to advocate and take care of her friends and other family members.

David Fair: Right. Well, when you became a judge and started ruling from the bench, how did you see the court system and its workings? And what was most striking to you about it?

Victoria Pratt: You know, I think what's interesting about myself as a judge is that I have actually worked in every branch of government. So, I worked at the governor's office for New Jersey, for Governor McGreevey and Governor Codey. And so, I really got an understanding of how the executive branch works and who and how things get done and who influences and who has the most influence and how voters decide and if they really have the power to decide if they're not in the game. And then, I went to work for the legislative branch. When I came to Newark and worked for the council, I served as attorney for the municipal council, and it was amazing from that perspective to see how laws were made, who influenced--important it's who influenced--policy and how it impacted the residents of the community. Another experience I had is that I also worked for the school district and watching how money gets spent, how education gets dispensed throughout a system, what the district believes is responsible for what strong teachers and educational leaders do. And then, I got to the judiciary and really began to understand how all of these things impact the justice system, how decisions that are made in each one of those places impact what happens in the justice system. So, I think it gave me just a deeper understanding of how people ended up before me. And that's always my question. How did people end up here? And understanding that as a judge, you get to ask that question that you don't work for the prosecutor, you don't work for the public defender, you don't work for the police department, but that you are a neutral arbiter, the obligation, and what it means to be that the court system and how important it is.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we are talking with the Honorable Victoria Pratt. The former judge and noted author will deliver the keynote address at Eastern Michigan University's annual MLK Day President's Luncheon on Monday. Now, you brought up working at every level of government and seeing how the bureaucracy works. Perhaps it's always been true to one degree or another, but as we look at it today, the politics involved with the judicial system seem greater than ever, starting with the U.S. Supreme Court. But prosecuting attorneys across the country declare political affiliation and run for office. And where there are nonpartisan elections for these offices, there are still clear or intimated affiliations declared. How do you suggest getting politics out of the system, so that it presents truth and justice?

Victoria Pratt: Oh, what a great question, but what a heavy question! How does one get politics out of this stuff? I think that people really have to understand who they serve, and it's serving people, whether they are Republicans or a Democrat. It's serving communities and the communities that have put you in power. And so, when you talk about communities that have put you into power, that means that the power really belongs to the building electorate, so the folks who vote and make decisions about who gets to be in office. And once you put them in office, holding them accountable, regardless of whether they're Republicans, regardless of whether they're Democrats, regardless of whether they are Green Party or independents, it's really going to be the public. It's really going to be the community. That, to me, I believe they feel power in this process. And we're not. So, to shift those things, the electorate body has to decide, we're not going to stand for this. We're not going to let you divide us--you know, officials that divide us based on this stuff. These are things that serve the entire community. And when my entire community is healthy, then I'm healthy. When my entire community is wealthy, then I'm wealthy. So, I really think people have to begin to vote folks into office who hold on to those principles and who don't continue to tear the country apart or bring their politics into office.

David Fair: And how optimistic are you that the electorate will do that?

Victoria Pratt: [00:07:51] You know what? I'm optimistic. I feel like we are in a place of no return right now. And people are frustrated, particularly young people, which is why I'm so excited about being here at the university, because it's about preparing this generation to lead and having them understand how much power they do have. So, I think we have a generation of folks--of changemakers--who want to go out and see the outcome, to see that are no longer willing to just live in the country of their grandparents or parents, what they've decided the country should look like. So, I'm really optimistic. I am kind of an optimistic person anyway, but I am really optimistic.

Eastern Michigan University

David Fair: And I want to go further down the line of optimism. Again, we're talking with the Honorable Victoria Pratt in advance of her keynote address at Eastern Michigan University's MLK Day Presidents Luncheon on 89 one WEMU. Judge Pratt, also a noted author, having written the book "The Power of Dignity: How Transforming Justice Can Heal Our Communities." So, as we consider optimism, there are efforts across the country and right here in Washtenaw County to take a more compassionate approach to justice. Drug courts are providing treatment and second chances. Alternative sentencing is becoming more popular. Restorative justice is being experimented with places across the country. What are you most optimistic about?

Victoria Pratt: That we are doing things that make sense--things that just make sense. You know, we live in a country where we look at social ills and we send them to a court and we tell a judge, "You do something about this." But that's not the place they should be. But if we're going to send them to a courthouse and we have to give the courthouse, we have to give the prosecutor's offices, we have to give the judges tools to deal with those social ills that are coming through the door. Because we can't legislate. We can't just punish our way out of these problems. We just can't incarcerate our way out of these problems. And I believe that, you know, maybe for the past 30 or 40 years, we've been in the area of like, "Oh, just tough on crime!" And what we've learned is that tough on crime is not smart on crime. It hasn't changed. It hasn't made any difference. In fact, all it's done is really create holes in our human capital and just devastated entire communities. So, I am optimistic that people are saying, "You know what? My neighbor needs help. My family needs help." And I think that where it needs to happen is right here in the courthouse and that we deal with low level offenders in a way that restores them and sends them back into our communities, so they can contribute, because we do realize that people are coming back home. And so, what are we doing to make sure that there's a place for them when they come back?

David Fair: I know your time is very short, Judge Pratt, so I want to ask one final question, if you don't mind. In Doctor King's address to the nation on the National Mall almost 61 years ago, he included a passage that seems to speak to everything you've shared with us today. He said, and I quote, "We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." When you hear those words, words that echo what you've been building upon and telling us today, how would you assess the state of the dream in 2024?

Victoria Pratt: I have to tell you; I think that we have woefully missed the mark. And that's okay, because we can correct it. It's not okay that we've missed the mark, but we are in a position to do something now. And to feel this level of urgency that Doctor King talked about in the dream, every day we have to do something to move ourselves forward. Every day, we have to move the country forward. Every day, we have to do something to make us better as a country, so that everyone is served. So, I am excited. I remain energized about the possibility of improving the lives and improving our country. And it's just wonderful to know that he really did give us the blueprint. Doctor King really did leave us with a blueprint for improving how we live.

David Fair: Thank you for making time for us and sharing your perspectives today, and we are looking forward to seeing you on the EMU campus on Monday.

Victoria Pratt: Thank you.

David Fair: That is the Honorable Victoria Pratt. She will serve as keynote speaker at Eastern Michigan University's annual MLK Day President's Luncheon. That event runs from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Monday in the EMU Student Center Ballroom. Tickets are available through the university's website at emich.edu, and we'll have more information and links to the works of Honorable Judge Victoria Pratt on our website at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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