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Fighting the pipeline

Sat., Nov. 2, 2013, midnight

Judge Joe Brown is speaking today at two NAACP events in Spokane. (Associated Press)
Judge Joe Brown is speaking today at two NAACP events in Spokane. (Associated Press)

Judge Joe Brown speaks out about ‘school-to-prison’ justice system

Labor is a commodity, says Judge Joe Brown, and in these days of surplus – too many workers for too few jobs – it’s a commodity that has to be stored somewhere.

Like grain is kept in bins, Brown said in an interview this week before scheduled appearances in Spokane, the workers who aren’t working are kept in jails and prisons. The American justice system has transformed from “a crime control device to a system to control surplus labor,” he said.

Brown, who presided over the syndicated TV show “Judge Joe Brown” for 15 years until its cancellation last spring, is scheduled to speak today to help raise scholarship money for the NAACP’s Spokane branch. In a free forum this afternoon and in a keynote address tonight, he’ll make a call to end the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Brown was chosen because of his interest in alternative sentencing and in working with young people, said Roberta Wilburn, who helped choose Brown to speak at the NAACP’s events.

“We really want to curb the number of young people, particularly young people of color, who are being incarcerated,” she said.

She said Brown has credited his education for helping him “overcome the streets” of South Central Los Angeles, where he grew up before becoming a lawyer in Memphis and later serving as a judge of the Shelby County (Tenn.) Criminal Courts before moving to his TV courtroom.

“(Brown) had to work hard to be in school, and he had to take the high road,” Wilburn said. “When a lot of young people were getting in trouble, he focused on education.”

Described by CBS Television Distribution – before it canceled his show over a contract disagreement – as a “tough-talking” and “no-holds-barred” judge, Brown started handing down unusual sentences in his Memphis courtroom even before landing his TV show. In one tactic that drew press attention, he allowed burglary victims to enter thieves’ homes under the watch of deputies to take items equal in value to what they’d lost.

His show became the second highest-rated court show in television syndication, after “Judge Judy.” It was reality TV: Brown’s rulings were final and binding, and the characters and situations who starred on it – real plaintiffs and defendants in real legal disputes – sometimes bordered on bizarre.

In a show that aired earlier this year, a 27-year-old defendant suddenly alleged a herpes infection in the plaintiff, a former friend who wanted to be paid back for a phone-and-TV bill.

“You are ridiculously wrong!” Brown told the woman from the bench. The judge could understand the $50 in landline charges, but not the nearly $400 for DirecTV.

“You’re sitting on your butt – you have to be entertained at her expense?” he said. “Yeah, you don’t have a job! You’re not working, and you’re not enrolled in school, sitting down, and your baby daddy ain’t paying child support!”

In the interview before his trip to Spokane, Brown talked about the economic, educational, cultural, family and sexual factors he said lead young people into American courts.

As a judge in Memphis, Brown said, he achieved a low recidivism rate among defendants who passed through his courtroom by doing more than sending them to jail, imposing strict probation requirements that required lawbreakers to meet with him regularly. He’d start conversations by thanking defendants. Crime pays for those employed in the infrastructure designed to deal with criminals, he’d tell them, including those who make money through prison systems.

Then he’d talk with them about setting a goal: “The goal was ‘Become a man’ or ‘Become a woman.’ ” In many cases, his message got through, Brown said. Former defendants stopped him on the streets in Memphis to thank him.

But while those factors that land young people in prison create a dysfunctional system, he said, the system keeps going because it’s serving a purpose: sending surplus labor into storage.

“We’ve got to decide we want to change it, because it is not getting good,” Brown said. “It is getting worse.”

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