Jake Struebing, Federal Court System of Camden, NJ
I start most of my mornings with a run from Camden to Philadelphia on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and back again. The view overlooking Philadelphia and the Delaware River is astounding – an impressive skyline and a bustling financial district – it truly is the second largest city on the East Coast. But the view perceptibly changes as I begin back towards Camden. Directly before me lies a revitalized waterfront district, but with a quick glance to the north or the south and I can see resounding evidence of urban decay and social degeneration. Philadelphia certainly has rough neighborhoods and its own struggles, but nothing on the geographic scale that Camden faces. Although separated only by about a mile, the juxtaposition of these two cities is a sight to see – affluent privilege contrasted against staggering poverty. I know that as I head into work at the United States District Court I will hear talk of last night’s shootings and arrests amongst the attorneys and law enforcement.
At my internship in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, I shadowed a United States District judge for three weeks and served with U.S. Probation for five weeks. The Court consists of U.S. District Court judges, magistrate judges, U.S. Probation, and Pretrial Services. Together, they work as a unit adjudicating all criminal and civil cases that arise in southern Jersey. I observed criminal proceedings, specifically focusing on the culpability and sentencing of socioeconomically disadvantage defendants in addition to studying civil cases with poverty-related implications. In the probation office, I assisted with legal reentry services, teaching GED classes and developing restitution repayment plans for indigent offenders under supervised release. Despite the tough environment “on the streets,” probation boasts approximately an 80 percent successful reentry rate for ex-offenders.
Contrary to popular belief, so many offenders want to get off the streets and complete their legal obligations, but lack the resources and know-how. They struggle with deficient educations since many lose interest in eighth or ninth grade and begin criminal histories at 13 or 14 years old; others come from dysfunctional families with guns, drugs, and domestic violence in the home; while others still suffer from inadequate public assistance (convicted felons are not eligible for most forms of welfare) and hazardous, crime-ridden housing. I distinctly remember an ex-offender who was employed at a minimum wage jobsite miles from his house, and his transportation costs were crippling his finances. I had a hard time budgeting his restitution payments because cutting his car expenses would mean giving up gainful employment –and he couldn’t find better employment in the sluggish economy.
Thus, Camden poignantly represents urban poverty in America and its devastating repercussions. As of 2011, the median household income was $18,007 – the lowest of all cities with populations exceeding 65,000 residents. In October of 2012, the FBI announced Camden was ranked first in per capita violent crime. I am struck by how, at times, the city appears as a lawless second or third-world country. Ironically, the city also appears as a police-state with constant patrols and a gunfire detection system at nearly every street corner. The U.S. Probation officers told me that until the county-level consolidation of the police force, drug deals were visible on street corners in broad daylight while the officers were conducting their home visits. However, to borrow a phrase from one-time Camden resident Walt Whitman, this “city invincible” shows glimpses of hope and progress.
I had the opportunity to attend the dedication ceremony for the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in the Cramer Hill district. This project – after eight long years of work by the Salvation Army in coordination with local and state government officials and agencies and sponsoring businesses – will provide essential services to the community including a food pantry, early childhood education center, health clinic, senior center, and a culinary arts teaching kitchen. Politicians gave speeches, a chaplain held a prayer, and the atmosphere was celebratory as the Camden community rejoiced in its resurgence. I learned an important lesson from this substantive experience that is critical for any publically spirited person interested in government, policy, or nonprofit work. In a place like Camden, the situation is always better than you think it is, while paradoxically being worse than you realize. Let me explain. On certain days, like this dedication ceremony, I was openly optimistic about the prospects for social progress. On other days I was understandably cynical, thinking to myself that it would probably be better to tear everything down and start anew. But, to the residents here, Camden will always be home and worth fighting for. I found that striking a balance between these two extremes lends perspective and insight into the reality of the situation – that sustaining success and mitigating damage are the only things you have control over. Only then will desirable outcomes follow.
In fact, I have seen how the role of government in distressed communities can either alleviate the burden of poverty or exacerbate it. I realized that courts have the opportunity to make a tangible, positive impact in the lives of indigent offenders nearly every day. Specifically, I observed a sentencing hearing in which the judge was to administer a new sentence after an indigent offender violated conditions of supervised release. When this offender was originally released from prison he lost his business, fell into debt, and turned to substance abuse. He was subsequently rearrested, but he was such a mess that the judge would not hold the sentencing hearing until he cleaned his act up and sought treatment. The offender did so and his progress was substantiated by a doctor. That put the judge in a precarious situation. On one hand, if the judge sent him back to prison, he would lose the employment he had recently received and would dis-incentivize the constructive treatment the offender just sought. On the other hand, the judge had to discipline him for seriously endangering the public welfare during his belligerent escapade. The judge, conscious of this moral hazard, sentenced the offender to 6 months home confinement and 200 hours of community service – thus allowing him to keep his job and continue his recovery while still reprimanding the violation in a significant manner. This was undoubtedly an example of a positive judicial intervention on a subjective level, promulgating a rehabilitative, yet punitive sentence.
Unfortunately, however, it does not always work out that way. Each case has different mitigating and extenuating factors, not to mention that judges disagree over criminal jurisprudence despite having considerable authority in these proceedings. The subjectivity can either be reassuring, ensuring a just outcome for the impoverished or they can be unnerving, introducing human error into the legal system – depending on your own perspective. One of the judge’s civil cases deals with a “disparate impact” discrimination claim under the Fair Housing Act. The case cuts to the heart of the role of government in the economic redevelopment of blighted communities. Does the government and private industry intervene to repair a declining neighborhood but, in doing so, displace a vulnerable class of citizens? Or does the government leave the neighborhood to deteriorate in fear of backlash, while the vulnerable class is still adversely affected? This dialectic between collective and individual responsibility inherently conflicts when promoting social and economic justice in the fight against poverty.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned to recognize that every decision and every policy are not created equal. They all intersect with poverty in both beneficial and adverse ways; they all affect classes of people differently; and, inevitably, the political and legal realities of these policies create winners and losers. Although choosing between the lesser of two evils sounds disheartening, these questions continue to evolve and so must our answers – evidencing a healthy tension in government. You cannot naively change the world; you must work within the proverbial “system,” learning to harness it in a productive and effectual way. I always thought I understood this notion, but I never appreciated how far you have to go to ensure justice and get something tangible accomplished.