My work with youth showed me how the experiences of different groups vary even when engaging in similar behaviors. I have seen how young girls are often treated more harshly by paternalistic judges than male counterparts. Similarly, I’ve seen how the experiences of black youth look drastically different than white youth regarding behaviors in schools.
This is the third post of our election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.
This is Raymond Robinson, candidate for Magisterial District Judge on the Northside. I know his wife who asked me about submitting a Q&A – I like when people come to our community and offer to take our questions. I was shocked that this magisterial district seat has remained unfilled since Judge Ravenstahl resigned. That’s one of those miscarriages of the criminal justice system that fly under the radar.
Your Name: Raymond Robinson
Your Pronouns: He/Him
The Office You Seek: Magisterial District Judge 05-02-42 (encompasses the 26th and 27th wards in the City of Pittsburgh
How do you describe your identity? I am a black, biracial, heterosexual, male.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life? I remember the first Trans female youth that I met personally while working as a Social Services Manager at Shuman Detention Center. I can’t disclose anything else about the young woman, but her impact on me as a person and a professional has had lasting effects. Prior to meeting her, I didn’t realize how cis-hetero-normative all of our processes and procedures were at Shuman. From where to house the residents, to the types of undergarments they were given, to their pronouns, we had to address our competency at all levels of care. I personally faced pushback from staff who refused to respect trans youth so I advocated on their behalf on a consistent basis. Realizing the pushback I got as a supervisor opened my eyes, and enabled me to realize the importance of my role, and the role of leaders in general, to advocate on behalf of those whose voices, and needs have largely gone unheard, if not outright condemned. I’d say this young woman helped me really grow as an individual and as a professional.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region. Outside of friends and family, I am most familiar with the LGBTQ community as it pertains to my work in juvenile justice, child protective services, and foster care. I worked with Persad Center to provide training to raise staff awareness of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE). As I shared above, during my time at Shuman, I helped lead systemic change within our intake process, housing, and staff interactions. I helped create processes that would give residents the ability to inform staff of their pronouns, and housing preferences. I also helped residents have the ability to choose their undergarments. To me this was an act that ultimately helped preserve the dignity of the residents, and normalize the process of selecting the clothing that best suits you. I couldn’t imagine someone in a position of authority telling me I had to wear underwear that was more appropriate for a gender I did not identify as. It became very important to me, to make sure I understood how to protect the dignity and humanity of every resident. These efforts were often met with the persistent, aggressive opposition that is common in this region. Some of that opposition came in the form of religious beliefs, and others were harshly defined binary gender expectations that were rooted in fear of the “other.” In general, I think those attitudes are pretty pervasive in this region, and in my own district.
As a heterosexual male, I think of myself on the outside looking in when it comes to my familiarity with LGBTQ issues, and therefore have to rely on listening to people who have more personal experience and expertise than me. That’s what I did in other professional roles, and what I continue to do in my role as Magisterial District Judge.
Magisterial District Judges are perhaps the ones who have the most contact with constituents, but are often not well understood. Please describe the role of the Magistrate in the judicial system. Magisterial district courts are the lowest courts in the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System. Disputes between parties involving less than $12,000, traffic citations, landlord/tenant disputes, and non-traffic summary offenses are some of the cases heard by magisterial district judges. District judges located in the city of Pittsburgh also serve at Arraignment Court, where they hear initial proceedings for criminal cases. They also hear applications for warrants and emergency protection orders, set and collect bail, and conduct marriage ceremonies.
More importantly, magisterial district judges have vast discretion in how they handle cases. I intend to exercise my discretion when making decisions on issues such as bail, diversion, and fines. Far too often the focus of the criminal justice system is on the “system” and not justice. Magisterial district judges often play their role and simply move cases along, forgoing the opportunity to resolve cases prior to sending them to the Court of Common Pleas. There are cases that can be more appropriately diverted and addressed at the magisterial district court level.
Along those lines, most people do not realize that magistrates are not required to be lawyers or even have any legal education in Pennsylvania. You are dealing with intricate matters involving evictions, arrest warrants, protection from abuse orders, truancy, and bail hearings among other issues involving very vulnerable neighbors. These are life altering scenarios that if not properly executed could leave legal loopholes to derail justice. Knowing people and understanding the issues is one thing, but knowing the law seems essential. Please explain how your own background has prepared you for this role. MDJs must complete a 4 week certification training and successfully pass an exam before they can assume their duty. The training and exam is waived if the person has a law degree, so legal education is required. All MDJs must complete annual continuing education requirements. I have a master’s degree in Criminology, and have worked continuously, for the last 25 years in my field in some capacity. My education and work experience gives me a solid understanding of people’s rights, how the legal system works, and how and where it doesn’t. I am confident that the required certification training, plus the academic, and professional experience I have within the criminal justice system, makes me uniquely qualified for this role. Knowing the law is imperative, but how laws are interpreted and applied is equally, if not more important when we consider the intersections of injustice and the remedy to fix it.
On a personal note, my background gives me a unique perspective to bring to this office because I have looked in the faces of youth who were wronged by the system. I’ve known youth who spent every summer of their teenage years in detention over things like probation violations, breaking curfew, or forgetting to make a court date. Until you have to tell a child that they do not have any privileges left to call their mom on their birthday, or until you have had to talk to the kids who don’t ever get any visitors because their mom doesn’t have a car and money is too tight to get bus fare and a sitter for her other kids, you can’t fully understand the gravity of how important this role is. I worked at Shuman Detention Center for 15 years. I still occasionally see men on the news who came through Shuman as teens, and are now dead to gun violence or drugs, or they took the life of someone else. I am not just aware that the school to prison pipeline exists. I was in it. I know that Magistrates are quick to move cases to higher courts in black neighborhoods, and less to do so in more affluent, white neighborhoods. The law is the same in both neighborhoods. But it’s not applied equitably. My professional and personal experience is a testament to that, and I am running to be the change I want to see in the system.
How does intersectionality inform your work? While I admittedly only began to hear the term “intersectionality” in recent years, I’ve always understood it intuitively. I am a holistic thinker, and recognize our interconnectedness. When examining social issues like poverty for example, one must consider how race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic factors overlap.
My work with youth showed me how the experiences of different groups vary even when engaging in similar behaviors. I have seen how young girls are often treated more harshly by paternalistic judges than male counterparts. Similarly, I’ve seen how the experiences of black youth look drastically different than white youth regarding behaviors in schools. If elected, I will continue to view my work and judicial responsibilities through an intersectional lens.
This seat is currently vacant. Can you summarize how that came to be and what impact the vacancy has had on the community? The previous holder, Judge Robert Ravenstahl, retired from the bench early last year. Since then, other judges have had to fill in to cover cases from this district. Cases before the court have been heard by judges from outside the community. The vacancy also led to one less magisterial district judge to fill in the rotation at Arraignment Court.
What are your views on the bail reform proposals? Bail has historically been used to guarantee a defendant’s appearance at future court dates. Bail has also been used to ensure public safety when defendants are accused of serious crimes and may pose a danger to the community. However, the individual factors that should be used to set bail are often skipped in lieu of process. Additionally, there is considerable research that bail is not related to a defendant’s likelihood to appear, and does not increase public safety. Increasingly, the bail system just leads to those without means sitting in jail, while those with resources are able to be released prior to their court dates.
And while pre-trial detention is not supposed to be punitive, it often is for those who are unable to pay. Defendants lose jobs, housing, and have disruptions to their families as they wait in jail, even though they are presumed innocent. The use of cash bail has led to income and racial disparities. The current cash bail system does not achieve its stated goals, and disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color. This is not an equitable system and needs to be reformed.
Bail does not have to be linked to cash. Promises to appear have been used and can continue to be utilized. Additionally, there are other methods to ensure public safety instead of pre-trial detention. Pretrial services such as check-ins, GPS monitoring, and court reminder calls have been effective in many jurisdictions. Opportunities for defendants to receive drug treatment, and/or mental health services, and also increase the likelihood of appearances at court as well as increased public safety.
While bail is not used for juveniles, I was part of a team that included juvenile probation, juvenile court, Shuman Center, and local providers to implement alternatives to detention for accused youthful offenders. Pretrial assessments and services have been effective at reducing the number of juveniles requiring to be detained prior to their court appearances.
Please explain how restorative justice works? Restorative justice is an increasingly popular way to view criminal justice. Rather than taking a strictly “tough on crime” approach, or a lenient “rehabilitation” approach, restorative justice looks at the needs of the whole community. This typically entails holding the offender accountable to victims and the community, ensuring victims are included throughout the case, and community services and resources that enable offenders to make changes to reduce the likelihood of causing more harm.
Focusing on the harm caused, how it can be rectified, and what actions can be taken to prevent future occurrences, is a fundamentally different way of viewing “justice.” The fading paradigm of past decades merely looked at which laws were broken, identified who broke them, and then punished the offender. While this may satisfy the need for retribution, this approach did little to address the actual harm done, and even less to prevent future harm.
I went before a magistrate when my neighbor’s dog bit my dog. We had witnesses, video, etc. He found in our favor, but she appealed. I was shocked when we got to Court of Common Pleas to learn that there was no transcript, no documentation from the magisterial court except the finding. It created another level of “she said, she said” that made everything so much worse. How can we not have this level of documentation in 2021, the digital era? It feels like a lot of parts of this system are stuck in the 1980s in terms of technology and best practices. I’m guessing there is no interest in investing in the infrastructure? Or is it something else? (Editor’s Note – we are on good terms with neighbor now)In every court I’ve been in over the past several years, there have been digital recorders that are used for official transcripts of court proceedings. I am unsure why the court you were in did not have a similar system, or a court reporter to record a transcript. I will look to ensure there are transcripts of all proceedings in my courtroom, specifically looking into the digital recording systems I’ve seen in other courts.
Most judges in Pennsylvania have a simple retention question on the ballot, but magistrates have to run a full reelection campaign. Is that an effective process? I agree with retention votes for most judges, since it reduces the need for fundraising and campaigning. I’m not certain why magistraterial district judges are excluded, but I’m also not opposed to magistrates having to conduct reelection campaigns. There are pros and cons to both processes.
From my understanding, magistrates are often reelected, and serve multiple terms. That could be an argument for adding magisterial district judges to the retention process. The high reelection rates could also show reelection campaigns for magistrates are not particularly arduous. The districts are significantly smaller than that of other judges, and do not require the amount of fundraising and campaigning as needed in larger jurisdictions.
Tell me about your endorsements and supporters. I am focused on getting voters to support my campaign, over other elected officials because I think it is harder for a judicial candidate to model impartiality when they receive partisan support. I have knocked on hundreds of doors and hope to continue growing my support. So far, I’ve been met with a lot of positivity, and open mindedness, which is encouraging.
I sought and received the endorsement from the Steel City Stonewall Democrats because I believe it is very important to get support from organizations that focus on equality.
Is there anything you’d like to add? Yes, I intentionally did not seek the endorsement of the local democratic committee because of the well documented, unchecked, Trump supporting and bigoted committee members, some of whom are ward chairs. I could not in good conscience give money to or seek the approval of a committee that has also endorsed Trump supporters and flat out ignored some heinous propaganda shared by those in its ranks. It is a matter of principle for me to really be about systemic change in our region.
Where can readers find your campaign on social media? How can they donate to your campaign?
Thank you, Raymond.
Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.
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