While in Brazil learning how it applies restorative justice in its corrections system, I met the wonderful Judge Cristiana Cordeiro.  She is young, enthusiastic, and  more interested in protecting children than she is in status and her own comfort. Once a month Judge Cordeiro travels to a prison in Rio de Janeiro to conduct hearings for incarcerated women helping them place their children into secure and stable homes. “It was much easier for me to come to them than for them to come to court,” she said.

In Brazil infants are allowed to live in prison with their incarcerated mothers until they are six months old. After that the babies are placed with other care givers outside of prison. Judge Cordeiro noticed early in her child protection court work the difficulties that imprisoned mothers face in coming to court. Being a pragmatic and service orientated person, she now brings court to prison. “I wanted it to be easier on the families,” says Judge Cordeiro. According to staff at the prison and attorneys practicing in cases heard in prison, Judge Cordeiro’s arrangement is much better for the mothers and children and it has positively influenced prison employees and attorneys practicing in her court.

On July 11, 2010, I accompanied Judge Cordeiro to a court hearing she held in a Rio prison. A prison employee said, “We really appreciate her and all she has done to help the women.” A public defense attorney for the imprisoned person said, “She is an exceptional judge. Bringing court to prison is much better.” The prosecutor also present nodded in agreement with his adversary’s assessment.

Judges regularly visiting prisons helps the prisons function better and it gives judges a better understanding of how prisons function and how they affect incarcerated people.

American state judges would benefit their communities by implementing Judge Cordeio’s strategy by holding some court hearings in prisons. If more American state judges knew how prisons work they might better understand why people repeat crime after imprisonment. With this knowledge judges could more easily help reform broken correction systems in many states. And as someone who represented prisons and prison staff in a number of high profile cases during my career as a lawyer, I believe more judges regularly visiting prisons could lead to more restorative justice.

“So sorry I kept you waiting,” said Judge Cordeiro when I first met her. “I received a death threat and the police are busy providing me with protection which gets in the way of my schedule,” she adds.  A man who was affiliated with a fringe religious group, which had a member charged with killing someone recently, threatened Judge Cordeiro.  “He did apologize,” she said too.

Besides going to the trouble of holding hearings in prison, Judge Cordeiro works long days including supervision of about 60 employees who are busy helping families. Judge Cordeiro also writes the blog “Ask the Judge” which provides information for people with child custody questions:  http://www.2vriji.blogspot.com/