A standout student in a poor neighborhood in Newark, Marvin Adames ‘94, was encouraged to imagine a bright future for himself. He dreamed of being an artist. Prosecutor or judge never crossed his mind as possibilities, he recalls, noting that law enforcement authorities were viewed with some wariness by many in his housing project.
Appointed last August as a municipal court judge in his hometown after a six-year run as the city’s chief prosecutor and an assistant Essex County prosecutor before that, he has now held both positions. He is motivated, he says, by the chance to resolve cases constructively—and change perceptions.
“People come in to court and they’re afraid of the system, fearful of the fines. I feel it’s important that they are comfortable and clearly understand what happens here. I tell them they can ask me anything,” Adames says, adding that he also allows offenders in some cases to pay in installments. “There’s more dignity to that for people, who may also be embarrassed to admit they can’t pay up front. They’ve already admitted guilt.”
As a prosecutor, he adds, “I realized you could actually have an important impact on the system—and peoples’ lives. You have the ability to make decisions about the charges you bring by looking carefully at the facts of the case and the individual. The answer is not always to lock people up.” As a judge, he has the flexibility to refer non-violent offenders into the Newark Community Solutions program, where they receive an array of social services, including career help.
“One of the things I’ve realized is that people who do bad things are not necessarily bad people. The guy who steals hubcaps is also the guy who helps your grandmother with her grocery bags,” he observes.
Adames credits an upperclassman at TCNJ—one of the many mentors who weighed in at a critical juncture in his life—with urging him to explore a law career by attending the Institute for Pre-Legal Studies at Seton Hall University over a summer. He found it fascinating, to his surprise. Earlier still, he recalls, were the many adults in his community who spurred him to grasp opportunities that took him beyond its borders.
“Early on, people took an interest—aunts, neighbors, and teachers—and that was so important,” he says.
Encouraged to excel in school, he studied diligently enough at his makeshift desk at the family’s kitchen table to be named salutatorian of his class in middle school and then at the city’s Arts High School. Inspired by the free art classes he took on Saturdays, he walked around the projects with a pail of pencils in hand and his head full of Degas and Van Gogh, dreaming of becoming an artist.
What is powerfully absent in so many of the young lives that come before him are these transformative opportunities, he says. “Many people in urban communities don’t know much about life beyond their block, and so they aren’t aware of the possibilities. They lack mobility, funds and connections.”
A scholarship student in college who also qualified for the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), Adames cites James Boatwright, then head of the EOF program and “a father figure for me,” and James “Butter” Allen ’72, head of the College’s custodial services who preached “each one, teach one,” as important mentors at a formative time. Both reinforced the ethic of giving back.
Adames has taught at the legal studies program, geared toward disadvantaged students, that spurred his interest in the law. A resident of Jersey City, he recently served as vice president of the city school board, where he led many of the public community forums on the search for a new superintendent of schools that brought in Marcia Lyles, an innovative outsider. When he was appointed a judge, he was required to step down.
“I’ve always been involved with young people and interested in how they relate to education,” he says. “I wanted to see change.”