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The Role of the Community Judge
by Judge Joseph Reardon (profile)

In traditional trial court lore, a judge is to uphold and administer the law without any personal involvement or interaction with defendants. This view obliges the judge to remain aloof and distant and to suppress any desire to intervene. I find it curious that a judge should be asked to deal with the most fundamental human right to be free without being able to engage in intervention in a hands-on way, so to speak.

I am of the mind that the role of the judge in our community courts should be that of a community activist and leader for ethical change, an exemplar of justice, a proponent of personal growth and change, a supporter of educational opportunities, and an innovator for alternatives to incarceration. This nontraditional view is contrary to the accepted idiom in common usage.

If we deal with a population of men and woman who have either never been exposed to the process of ethical decision making or who have lost their way, the traditional approach of incarceration has never been, nor ever will be, the methodology to restore them to the model we would like to see. In order for these members of our community to acquire critical thinking ideologies, they must be made aware of their deviant behavior in a way that causes them to internalize the message that there is a different way of living their lives that obliges them to become more thoughtful and caring in their daily activities.

The Changing Lives Through Literature program is expressly designed to cause introspection and reflection by using the vehicle of literature to initially capture the attention of the reader with the story told and, through discussion, to focus on the traits exhibited by the several characters discussed by the author. This process inevitably leads one on a journey of self-discovery and the realization that these characters are not unlike ourselves. The discussion often revolves around cause and effect, with the realization that we are the cause of misfortune to ourselves and to those we affect with our conduct. This process of identification with characters in the literature brings about an internalization of the ideals we discuss in class and causes all participants, including judges, probation officers, and professors, to become more conscious and sensitive to their own personal flaws and renews an interest in modification of their conduct. This is brought about by self-motivation and not by external forces.

All judges sitting in the district court need to analyze their effectiveness in creating change in the defendants standing before them for sentencing. It is time for judicial activism to engage these defendants in nontraditional means to cause a change in their lives, and this can be accomplished through the medium of literature.

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