“The first duty of society is justice”
“The first duty of society is justice” is a quote attributed to the famed abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips in 1861 and it's engraved on the Justice A.A. Birch Courthouse. Each day, the judges and staff of Nashville’s courts work to honor that duty.
In Tennessee and across the nation, there is a growing discussion of what form justice should take. For decades, justice was merely a closing jail door with acceptance of policies that ignored the societal and personal causes of crime. Crime bills, draconian laws and mass incarceration were the perceived solutions to crime in the past.
Attitudes are now changing to re-imagine how we utilize the resources available to turn the justice system to a pathway toward restoration, rather than just a tool for punishment.
Time to look again at our justice system
For the past five years, I have had the honor to preside over two special courts serving Nashville’s Veterans and those with mental health challenges. Through a structured program, our clients receive supervision, access to treatment and the support they need to overcome the circumstances that led them to involvement with the justice system.
The results for successful participation are life-altering with more than 85% of graduates in both programs successfully returning to society.
Success can also lead to a clean slate with expungement of charges and last year my two courts waived nearly $110,000 in court costs and fines, making it possible for our graduates to obtain employment and housing without the obstacles of a criminal record and financial burdens in court obligations.
We can ensure our formerly incarcerated have a fighting chance
Success in these court programs means a new brighter future for our clients. It not only means the end of their involvement with the justice system. It can mean reunification with their families, regaining of their personal dignity and the assurance they need to know they are a respected part of the Nashville family.
All of this is accomplished while saving Nashville more than $10 million in incarceration costs.
Recently, two of our program graduates shared their journey with the men and women who are still working toward recovery. One of our graduates shared his pride to “Have money in my pocket so I can go to the mall now.” That sounds like a small thing to those of us who will never fully grasp the struggle to overcome these challenges. To one man, it’s life-changing.
The second of our graduates summarized his journey as simply and starkly as possible:
“I’d be dead today if it weren’t for this program.”
As we welcome the local, state and national conversation on the future of justice reform, understanding that the willingness to make a true impact is there and, in Nashville, is already happening.
Every day, we are taking the lead in innovative successful reform, not only in the two courts I oversee, but dealing with the challenges of addiction, human trafficking, and troubled youth. With each success story, we demonstrate the positive results based on the ability and the desire of our clients to find their way back to full participation in the community if given the chance and the support they need to be successful.
Criminal justice reform can only be possible when we seek to understand the best way to address the underlying causes of criminal activity. Our restorative justice focus finds those causes within the individual, allowing us to guide their recovery.
It is encouraging to see the reconsideration on the future of our system that is now taking place. In that conversation and with the right approach, we can begin to truly fulfill society’s first duty – justice.
Melissa Blackburn was elected as Judge of the Division II General Sessions Court in 2014.