It was the summer of 1968 when Bernice Just was called to jury duty. For weeks, she sat in the courtroom as a tableau of Washington crime and punishment unfolded before her, and in those hot and crowded halls of justice, something she had always known became increasingly clear.
What she saw was a portrait of the offender as human being.
For Bernice Just, recently appointed chairman of the D.C. Parole Board, it was a picture that changed the direction of her life. Her summer brush with the courts made her "determined to become more involved in the criminal justice system."
"Of course," says Just, "I don't condone crime, and I'm no less fearful of it, but the jury experience really sharpened my sense of the need for fair play, for an evenness of justice where those who stand accused or convicted of crimes are concerned."
Bernice Just has been the victim of crime. She fears crime, yet believes parole, work-release and group homes are all fine things. But questions about her own experiences with crime elicit and audible gasp. A look of terror crosses her face as she describes the "eight or nine times" she has personally seen the face of wrongdoing.
There was a would-be purse snatcher whom she discouraged with the business end of an umbrella. And the man whom police brought to her door after they found him crouched in the shrubbery beside her home. Moments before, he had reached through the window and taken a purse from a nearby table. Then, there was the intruder in an upstairs bedroom. She was at home at the time.
However frightening her experiences, they have made her no less vigorous in her beliefs.
She has seen firsthand the jammed court dockets, sat crammed for hours in a sardine can of a courtroom on a steamy summer afternoon, heard the cries and whispers of overworked lawyers and judges, but abhors the notion of plea bargaining.
"Crime," says Bernice Just, "must not go unpunished. And the criminal act which is committed is the one which should be prosecuted."
Just is a woman of varied experience. She has been a government statistician, religious educator, an administrator for the American Friends Service, a political campaign organizer, political candidate.
Her experience as a juror caused her to seek the AFS job, where she was the director of programs advocating reforms in the administration of justice.
"I wanted to make a difference," Just says of the effect of her days in court.
"I sat on a number of juries," she said, recalling the experience, "but it wasn't any one specific case, it was seeing people in handcuffs, seeing . . . what I want to say is that I became aware of people who had been charged with or convicted of crimes as people . . . I saw them as human beings, not some kind of abstract sociological phenomenon labeled 'criminal.'"
The criminal justice system is multi-faceted and requires the critical, hawk-like scrutiny of one who would be fair, Just says. She sighs as she confesses that she usually can see at least two sides to any issue, "which is what often makes this work so hard."
Consider, for example, her position on the prosecution of misdemeanors such as petty theft -- what she calls "nickel-and-dime stuff."
"My question is whether all of that prosecution of misdemeanors is desirable. Maybe it would be better to have the person post a $25 collateral bond, like you do with traffic tickets, if what was stolen was something small -- like a bottle of shampoo for example.
"But," she adds slowly, "I'm thinking about what the Board of Trade people would say, because I'm very well aware that there are two sides to this. I think that my answer to them would be that we spend a lot of money to prosecute one person who tried to get away with a $2 item, and I wonder if it's cost-effective. It seems to me that some of this . . . stuff that goes through the courts could be dealt with in a better manner."
Her own work load is a clear indication to Just that the courts are overcrowded, and she suggests offender diversion programs as one possible solution to the problem.
A board member before her appointment to the chair, Just says she looks for a number of things during the decision-making process, and rates an ability to cope with life in the outside world among the most important.
"You see an awful lot of passive dependency in institutions," she says. "People often say, 'How do you know he's sincere?' when someone is being evaluated for parole, but it is my feeling that if someone is able to get ready for the board, then he's probably able to prepare himself, to cope. These are skills which are essential to those of us who have been successful outside of prison, and it's impressive in someone who's been incarcerated for a period of time."
Just says she worries that the prison system could be "a vast human warehouse," paricularly where one group, young black men, is concerned.
"The fact is," she says sadly, "that most of our population at Lorton is largely between the ages of 18 and 37 and mostly black.
"The number of white prisoners in our system is minuscule. In six months on the board, I think I've seen maybe five white men and one white woman in a parole situation. I think of the ultimate tragedy, the slow destruction of the black family that this is causing, and it is almost unbearable. But at the same time, I think that when we look at this overwhelmingly black population confined to our institutions, we have to remember that we are seeing only half of the dismal picture, which is black-on-black crime.
"Really, I cannot say that we are doing this terrible thing to our young men, because look what they're doing to their neighbors, to old folks. You see a lot of man's inhumanity to man operating here . . . people just shouldn't be pushing people down, knocking them in the head, snatching bags . . . you really begin to wonder how the human spirit can become so callous. Sometimes I'll ask them how they could do it, and you know, they'll just look at me and say, 'It ain't no big thing, sister.'"
There are days, Just says, when the work is grueling, the decisions slow in coming, but she chose her profession because she has a "compulsion" to be of service. She thinks the need came from the teachings of her late parents -- William Y. Bell, a Methodist minister, and Annabelle Compton Bell, a homemaker.
As a young man, her father was run out of his native Memphis when he tried to come to the aid of an elderly black woman who was being mistreated by a streetcar conductor. When the fact of his blackness dashed his hopes to attend medical school, he turned instead to the church. During her childhood in New York, where her father founded a Methodist mission, Just says that "there were morals, principles, which were not pounded in to us, but which we (she is the second of three children) just absorbed. I remember him giving a speech in Liberty Hall in 1923 or '24 to raise money for Marcus Garvey's bail, even though he wasn't really a follower of Garvey's. He thought that you had to make whatever contribution you could."
The family moved several times during Just's childhood, traveling once to Atlanta. For the occasion, her father bought a car and taught himself to drive it so that his wife and children would not be subjected to the degradation of traveling under Jim Crow conditions. He was what his daughter describes as a "race man" -- a strong black nationalist -- and a social activist who founded a newspaper for black veterans, and once opened a free medical clinic in his church.
The family settled finally in Washington in 1936 when her father, one of the first black men to earn a Ph.D from Yale, became a professor at Howard University. Just graduated from Dumbar High School and then in 1940 from Howard, and says, "From the time we arrived in Washington, I knew there was a lot to be done. I think that this is one way, and when this phase of my career is over, I know I will find something else.
"I am not," said Just, who will be 60 this year, "the kind of person who gets old and just starts waiting to retire."