The people behind the bench

Peekskill’s two city court judges profiled and graduation day at drug court
The people behind the bench
Judge Johnson brings people smarts to the bench
The Honorable Reginald Johnson. (Regina Clarkin )

Peekskill Judge Reginald (Reggie) Johnson brings empathy gained from his lived experiences to the city court where he’s presided for the past decade. It’s a perspective guided by compassion. 

Those qualities are easily discerned when watching him preside over drug court and landlord tenant issues, which have personal significance for him. 

Johnson, who was recently reappointed by the Common Council to a ten-year term on the bench in Peekskill City Court, said someone in his family was addicted to drugs and he came to understand and develop empathy for people who struggle with addictions.

“It’s not just one person that is impacted, it impacts the entire family.” The fighting, stealing, and lying that accompany addiction affect everyone, especially children. That knowledge guides his behavior as he oversees drug court which is in session on the first and third Wednesday of every month. 

From his decade running drug court, Johnson has gleaned that people are not the sum of their worst actions, and that motivates him to help a person be integrated into society. Participants who commit to drug court have to attend all the sessions and meet with treatment counselors when they are not in court. If they don’t fulfill these requirements, they are required to do time in jail.

On Tuesdays, Johnson presides over landlord tenant disputes. This is another area where his life experiences have shaped his judicial practices. “I have to be empathetic, because ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. I try to do whatever I can to keep people in their homes. I give them time and try to do it with humility.”   When he sees single mothers trying to make ends meet he often wonders where the men are. He also stresses the impracticality to tenants who take advantage of landlords and tries to illustrate to tenants that building owners have legitimate responsibilities as well.  

 This subject is personal for Johnson.  He recalled the time he and his wife Pamela were living in an apartment in Mt. Vernon. He was attending Pace Law School full-time and working part-time, which led them to have difficulty paying their rent. When his landlord, George N. Trikedes, now deceased, came to collect it and learned that they were struggling, Trikedes gave them time to pay and told Johnson to finish law school and make sure he graduated. It was that type of empathy and compassion that has stayed with Johnson as he listens to landlords and tenant conflicts. 

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • Judge Johnson is a full time judge in Peekskill City Court.

  • Judge Johnson when he was a new lawyer.

  • Judge Johnson being sworn into office on New Year’s Day for another ten year term. His wife Pamela is reading the oath of office.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right

The cases that are the hardest for him to adjudicate are the criminal ones involving sexual assault of children.  He notes that the violence towards immigrants who are the victims of scams and assaults, especially because they often carry large amounts of money on them, are also extremely difficult to listen to. 

Growing up and attending schools in Mt. Vernon, Johnson, who is African American himself, was inspired by a high school business teacher named Milton Dudley who was the first black lawyer he’d met. Knowing Dudley started Johnson thinking that perhaps there was a career path in law he could pursue. He graduated from Hofstra University with a degree in political science and went to Pace Law School. He hung his shingle in Mt. Vernon in 1990 and ran a small general law practice performing real estate closing and personal injury law. He was also an assistant corporation counsel for the city of Mt. Vernon where he learned about municipal law. From that position, he went to Westchester County where he worked in the county attorney’s office until 2014, when he was appointed to the Peekskill’s bench. 

As the full-time city judge, Johnson oversees the court administration which includes the five court officers, eight clerks, a court attorney and clerical staff along with the other functions of the courthouse including the Alternative Dispute Resolution Meditation Center for civil cases.

Johnson is also aware of court backlogs that are the result of the pandemic , and has been in discussions with fellow members of the Judges Associations to find ways to streamline some areas. Regarding traffic court, he is having conversations with the city’s corporation counsel’s office to offer pleas through the mail if the violations don’t carry points to lighten the workload of the court. As it is, every time the court is in session, two court officers need to be present at all times. If an officer is out sick or has taken another job and hasn’t been replaced, both courtrooms can’t be in session, which creates delays. 

Johnson likes to say it’s not ‘his courtroom’ but rather the people’s courtroom, he just presides over it. What he’s come to realize is that for most people who come into the courtroom it’s not about a “black robe making a decision. People want their day in court to be heard.” Because oftentimes, what is resolved during a court appearance is what was offered in a non-court setting. 

As much as Johnson is compassionate and empathic, he’s also pragmatic. He believes that “for most people their worst act is not what defines them.” But when he’s looking at a rap sheet, ‘you are what your rap sheet says you are,” until you can show him otherwise. 

Johnson believes that everyone has the right to be defended and the district attorney has a job to prosecute. “As long as those things are working, I am going to be doing my job.”

Judge Fernandez wants to pave the way for others
La Honorable Lissette G. Fernandez (Enid Alvarez Photography)
La Honorable Lissette G. Fernandez (Enid Alvarez Photography)

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes: some wear capes, others wear gowns, but they all have one thing in common – a mission to administer justice. In this sense the Honorable Lissette G. Fernandez is one of Peekskill’s heroes. In 2015, after enjoying a successful nineteen year career in government, Fernandez opened a law office in her hometown of Peekskill (on Hudson Avenue) to help Hispanic residents achieve the “American Dream”. Fernandez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, once sought that dream herself; after realizing it, she now dedicates her life to making a difference for immigrants in the city that took her in, at age seven, when she arrived from Ecuador.

In February 2020, Fernandez made history when she became the first Latina judge appointed to Peekskill City Court. Her appointment showed Peekskill’s Hispanic community that no dream is too big and no barrier is insurmountable. Fernandez’s achievements and work have not gone unnoticed: in fact, she was recently recognized on two separate occasions. 

On October 5th, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Fernandez was the inaugural recipient of the 9th Judicial District’s Access to Justice Award, presented by the Hudson Valley Hispanic Bar Association. Fernandez received this award for her efforts in teaching the Hispanic community the rights of immigrants in the United States and immigration laws. In addition, Fernandez conducts an annual training program in the 9th Judicial District for court staff and community partners on topics impacting immigrant court users. Fernandez told the Herald that one of the reasons she teaches is to prevent the exploitation Latinos often endure because of a language barrier. 

Also in October, Fernandez was one of 24 other women featured in a Westchester Magazine article, “Women in Business Making A Difference in Westchester in 2023”. The women featured were “pushing the boundaries on what it means to lead, to serve, and to excel around Westchester County.” More specifically, the article noted about Fernandez: “Deeply committed to improving the lives of those in her community, Judge Fernandez is unstoppable in the face of justice.”

“I was very honored. Both awards were completely unexpected,” said Fernandez to the Herald. “I’m very blessed to say that I’m living my dreams in the city that I grew up in.” Fernandez hopes these accomplishments and her story will inspire others in the community. Fernandez’s path to judgeship encompasses a journey that includes law clerking in New Jersey, to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, to the  Attorney General’s Office, and finally coming back full circle to where it all started in Peekskill. 

Planting the seeds for justice

Fernandez, 48, was born in Quito, Ecuador. In 1982, at age seven, Fernandez immigrated to the United States with her parents; the family settled in Peekskill almost immediately. She recalled Peekskill being less culturally diverse then. “Peekskill was a very different place in the 1980’s. First of all, there were very few Latinos here – there were less than a handful of Latino families in Peekskill, my family was one of them.” 

Fernandez attended Assumption Catholic School in her early years. Adjusting to her new surroundings and her new school was hard for Fernandez when she first arrived. “The teachers at Assumption were really nice but there were no ESL [English as a Second Language] programs. They didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t speak English, so it was very hard.” Fernandez realized she needed to adapt quickly to succeed at her new school. “I was fluent in English in about a month because of necessity. I needed to learn it to move forward.” 

Growing up in Peekskill, Fernandez spent a lot of her free time at The Field Library with her brother. She enjoyed reading books and quickly became friends with the librarians. When she was 12 years old, Fernandez became intrigued by the highly-publicized murder of then 6-year old Lisa Steinberg, a victim of domestic violence. “It was all over the news. I couldn’t believe this would happen in the United States because I came from another country. I thought, ‘How could it be that this happens to a child?’” said Fernandez.

Determined to make sense of how an evil of that caliber could exist, Fernandez began to ask questions and as her curiosity continued to grow, the librarians at The Field Library guided her to the answers she desired. At such a delicate age, Fernandez discovered that lawyers had the power to bring justice to cases of that magnitude. “That’s when the seed was planted in me. I needed to become a lawyer,” said Fernandez. She would go on to spend a majority of her teen years helping the homeless and volunteering in shelters for survivors of domestic violence.

Fernandez received a scholarship to attend John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School in Somers; she graduated in 1993. After high school, Fernandez attended Iona College (now University). She graduated from Iona in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Philosophy.

Rise through the ranks

Fernandez continued volunteering at shelters throughout college, allowing her to make connections with a range of people. When Fernandez was looking for a job after college, she discovered that another shelter volunteer was  a lawyer who worked for the Bronx District Attorney’s office. Through this connection, Fernandez was able to land a job as a paralegal (a legal assistant) at the Bronx DA’s office. 

Fernandez’s own career ambitions were validated by her two-year  stint as a paralegal. “Working with the District Attorneys day by day reassured me that that’s what I wanted to do.” In 1999, Fernandez left the Bronx DA’s office to attend Seton Hall Law School in Newark, New Jersey; she graduated in 2002. But in order to practice law, Fernandez still needed to pass the bar exam, which is like a ‘lawyer’s license’ and is a very demanding exam that takes hours. Fernandez passed on her first attempt for both New Jersey and New York and was able to head straight into the workforce, becoming a clerk in Essex County Family Court, in Newark, New Jersey. A judicial clerkship is a year-long prestigious position generally only available to top students. 

Later in 2002, Fernandez returned to the Bronx DA’s office, not as a paralegal  but a fully-fledged Assistant District Attorney. Fernandez worked in the Domestic Violence and Sex Crimes Unit, where she successfully tried hundreds of domestic violence cases. Fernandez compared her experience working in this unit to what a viewer might see on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” – but without the exaggerated drama of the show. Fernandez worked at the Bronx DA’s Office for five years. During Fernandez’s last two years there, she moved from sex crimes to the Narcotics Investigations Unit. “After a while you want to rotate because with those cases – it’s good to take a break,” said Fernandez. 

Fernandez left the Bronx DA’s office in 2007 to join the Office of the New York Attorney General as an Assistant Attorney General. (At the time, Andrew Cuomo was the State’s Attorney General.) Fernandez was assigned to the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which investigates and prosecutes Medicaid fraud by service providers in any form in New York State. The job required Fernandez to live in Manhattan. After eight years of commuting, spending only weekends in Peekskill, Fernandez began contemplating other jobs to dedicate more of her time to raising her son (Noah, now 10 years old). In 2015, Fernandez made the brave choice to leave her job in government.“It was hard because I had been in government my whole life,” said Fernandez.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • Judge Fernandez is Peekskill’s part-time city court judge.

  • La jueza Fernández con uno de sus mentores, Alan Karen, en la oficina del fiscal de distrito del Bronx.

  • La jueza Fernández, vestida de negro en primera fila, se une a otras mujeres distinguidas en la ceremonia de premiación de la revista Westchester en noviembre. A su lado está la directora ejecutiva de CHHOP, Cynthia Knox, vestida de rojo.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right

Immigration Work 

While she worked in Manhattan, Fernandez said she would often get calls from Father John Higgins and Father Vincent Druding, of the Assumption Church. They told her the Hispanic community in Peekskill needed more bilingual and biliterate lawyers. In 2015, after she left her position as an Assistant Attorney General, Fernandez began to consider immigration as the next chapter in her career. 

Although she had no prior experience in immigration, Fernandez jumped on the opportunity to help the community she loved dearly. “After seeing the need for it, I opened my own law practice in immigration here in Peekskill.” Fernandez primarily works on criminal defense and immigration cases. 

Although Fernandez had been practicing law for nearly 20 years, immigration law was a challenge. “Immigration law is very complex and difficult,” she said. Fernandez noted that lawyers have to be vigilant in knowing the latest laws: immigration is an area of federal oversight and laws change frequently. “If you’re not up to date on the law, it could literally be your client’s ‘life or death’”.

While perfecting her trade, Fernandez recalled doing a lot of pro-bono (free) cases, often partnering with nonprofits to provide people with free representation. Within a few years, due to word of mouth, Fernandez gained many clients, becoming popular with the Hispanic community in Westchester. Fernandez is uniquely and ideally qualified to help her clients in the courtroom: she draws from her five years as a prosecutor and her current experience as a judge. Further, she is fluent in Spanish and English. This trifecta has set her apart from other lawyers in the area: . “If I wasn’t bilingual and biliterate, I could not have left government and opened a practice and made a living. There’s thousands of lawyers but because I was bilingual and I understood the community, I was able to come here and help the community.”

Fernandez added that she is selective of who she works with because she does not want to profit off anyone’s vulnerability. “No lawyer can ever guarantee the outcome of a case but I like taking cases where I know the individual has everything they need to move forward.” She added, “There are attorneys out there who will take any case, even if the person has no chance, and I don’t believe in doing that.”

Historic judgeship in Peekskill 

Fernandez made history in 2020 when she became the first Latina judge appointed in Peekskill for a six year term. (Fernandez can be a judge and  practice law at the same time because she practices immigration law, which is federal law.) Her  appointment did not come easily; Fernandez had been passed over for the position four years earlier. 

In 2016, Peekskill Common Council voted to fill a city judge vacancy. Then Mayor Frank Catalina and fellow Republican council members, Vincent Vesce and Joe Torres, advocated for Fernandez, whom they believed was the best choice, given the growing Hispanic population in Peekskill. The Democratic-led council voted instead for Melissa Loehr, who became Peekskill’s first female city court judge.

“It was not my time.” said Fernandez. She explained to the Herald that after being passed over for the position, she continued her work as a lawyer, believing that fate would determine when it was her time to serve. That opportunity came in 2020, and now residents can find Fernandez and the Honorable Reginald J. Johnson presiding in Peekskill City Court over civil and criminal cases. 

After joining the Peekskill city bench, Fernandez was shocked that not a single court form was available in Spanish. One of the first changes she made was to make sure every document in the courthouse was translated into Spanish to help Spanish-speaking residents who came to court. “I did that not because anyone told me to – I just felt it was my duty as a person who was once limited in English proficiency as a child, to make sure that we at least have forms in Spanish.” This act alone speaks to why Fernandez was recently awarded the Access to Justice award. 

When asked what Fernandez enjoys most about being a judge, she responded, “Giving people an opportunity to have a platform to be heard. In a lot of the civil cases or small claims cases I do, that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes it’s something so small – maybe they’re fighting over a hundred dollars. But it’s not really about that hundred dollars. It’s more about someone who did something to someone else and they want to be heard.”  Fernandez explains that she prides herself on being a judge that listens to both sides (fitting, as she has been on both sides of the courtroom), rather than one who is dismissive. 

For anyone hoping to make the law a career, Fernandez shared a few tips: “Networking! People forget about how important networking is. Every single one of the jobs I had was because of the people I met along the way.” She added that being true to oneself and maintaining a good work ethic are the keys to success.

As for the future, Fernandez revealed that she is looking to move up to higher court after her current term ends in 2025. When asked why she wants to continue progressing, she said “It’s not just for me but I want to do it to inspire and open doors for others.” 

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • La jueza Fernández, corte de la ciudad de Peekskill.  Foto de Jeff Merchan

  • Judge Fernandez is Peekskill’s part-time city court judge.

  • La jueza Fernández, vestida de negro en primera fila, se une a otras mujeres distinguidas en la ceremonia de premiación de la revista Westchester en noviembre. A su lado está la directora ejecutiva de CHHOP, Cynthia Knox, vestida de rojo.

  • La jueza Fernández con uno de sus mentores, Alan Karen, en la oficina del fiscal de distrito del Bronx.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
Drug Court focuses on rehabilitation not punishment
Judge Johnson with drug court graduate Brian Bailey. (Photo by Regina Clarkin)

A man convicted of a felony telling a judge how he’s learned resilience and strength from his experience in the criminal justice system is rare. 

But for Brian Bailey that’s exactly what happened in the Peekskill City Drug Treatment Court (PCDTC). Drug court gave him the tools to turn his life around after his arrest and conviction on drug charges in Peekskill and Ossining in May of last year. 

Bailey, 38, of Ossining, graduated from Peekskill’s drug court on January 17 in a ceremony where his criminal records were dismissed and sealed. He completed the drug court requirements in seven months and became the 13th graduate of the program. 

The PCDTC mission is rehabilitation, not punishment. It restarted in 2019 after a seven year hiatus between 2004 to 2011 due to budget cuts. The court saw an increase in drug overdoses in the ensuing six years and a $600,000 grant from the federal government led to the re-establishment of the drug treatment court in 2019. The Northern Westchester branch office of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office refers potential candidates from 14 jurisdictions, from North Salem to Ossining, to the PCDTC where Peekskill Judge Reginald Johnson presides. 

While drug court may be held in a judicial setting, it more closely resembles group therapy where a team of people, consisting of lawyers, peer counselors, and family members, are closely involved in the lives of participants. And to preside over Peekskill’s drug court, Johnson had to participate in a training from the Judges National Drug Court. 

Participation in the drug rehabilitation program is voluntary; it’s considered a legal intervention that replaces jail. A person is assessed at their arraignment by the drug court coordinator to determine eligibility for drug court. 

In the 12 years of its existence, the program has seen 25 participants with half of them graduating and having their records sealed.

According to the national Office of Drug Drug court programs have a tangible effect on criminal recidivism. A study funded by the Department of Justice examined re‐arrest rates for drug court graduates and found that nationally, 84 percent of drug court graduates have not been re‐arrested and charged with a serious crime in the first year after
graduation, and 72.5 percent have no arrests at the two‐year mark.

Additionally, an analysis of drug court cost‐effectiveness conducted by The Urban Institute found that drug courts provided $2.21 in benefits to the criminal justice system for every $1 invested.

The program is a “blueprint for life”

Speaking at his graduation ceremony on a Wednesday in January, Bailey said he was motivated to change because of his parents and his 12-year-old daughter. “I owe it to my parents to be the best son they deserve and I owe it to my daughter to be the best father.” He explained how the drug court program involved more than showing up every week. “I was given the tools here to work on me and I was given the blueprint to use for the rest of my life. This taught me how to have relationships with people. There’s nothing like having a purpose.” 

He spoke of the support he received from the people associated with drug court, from the program coordinator Aarin Thomas, to the treatment counselors, and the program evaluator Julie Raines. Westchester Assistant District Attorney Steven Ronco, who comes to all the drug court graduations, told Bailey that, “You gave me nothing to do.” It was Ronco who made the recommendations to Judge Johnson that the felony convictions be dismissed and sealed. 

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • Brian Bailey with his mother Mary and his dad in the background.

  • The scene in the courtroom as Brian Bailey is given his certification of completion from Judge Johnson. In the foreground are representatives from the Westchester County District Attorney’s office and lawyers specifically designated as drug court attorneys.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right

Bailey’s mother and father traveled from Virginia to be present for the graduation and his dad spoke movingly about the growth he saw in his son. 

He wasn’t the only one addressing Bailey. In presenting a certificate to Bailey, Judge Johnson described what he saw in Bailey throughout his time in the court. “The name Brian comes from Irish and means brave, mighty power, high and noble. The name is a sign of strength and virtue. It means you will help inspire and be a person of high character. You have a name that is a symbol of strength and virtue.“ 

Addressing Bailey, Johnson told him he has debts to pay to the people who loved him in his lowest moments. “You have your whole life ahead of you. Make the best of it.” And quoting Robert Louis Stevenson, Judge Johnson told him to, “Focus on the seeds you plant, not on the harvest. Plant seeds of joy, commitment and success. I saw and sought the best in you.” 

Johnson told Bailey’s parents that he didn’t meet their son under the best of terms, but that Bailey has earned the certificate of achievement and that he exemplifies what the drug court program is about. 

A peer mediator from the Lexington Recovery Center who supported Bailey spoke of how one of the most difficult parts of her job is watching people self-destruct but watching people re-construct is a whole different experience. “You came in here uncertain and unsure and you mostly learned about yourself. This requires strength,” said Anita Bonner.

“I came in here with motivation, this was going to change my life,” related Bailey.

More to Discover