JUNEAU, Alaska — Sometimes when Keith Levy rounds a corner in the grocery aisle, he’ll see someone he’s sent to prison. The encounter isn’t an awkward one.
“They’ll say, ‘You sentenced me three years ago and said something that inspired me, and I’ve really done well and here’s my wife, my kids and I have this much sobriety,’” said Levy, one of Juneau’s two district court judges. “It’s very satisfying.”
Levy has sat behind a bench in Juneau for almost 12 years, but in October he’ll step down to begin a new stage in his life: retirement. Inside his first floor Dimond Court House chamber, he forgoes the judge’s robe and instead wears a suit and a nearly constant smile, the Juneau Empire reported.
Originally from New York, he’s lived in Alaska since 1982 after a six-month internship at the Legislature turned into an unending love for Juneau. He describes himself as someone who likes to tell jokes and be silly, but that’s hard to do in his current role because the matters before him are usually of a sensitive nature.
Soon, however, he’ll be spending more time with his wife and his seven grandchildren (an eighth is on the way).
“I have not had more than a three week vacation in probably 35 years, so I just want to not work for a little bit,” Levy said, explaining that he’s chosen to retire now as he approaches his 60th birthday.
And although he’s only been a judge in the latter years of his law career, his work has almost always kept him in the same building on the corner of Fourth and Main streets. In his first role as an intern, he had a desk on the sixth floor with what he said was the best office view (he could see whales breaching in the Gastineau Channel).
Despite the demotion in scenic views as he was promoted later in life, he said his judgeship is the best job he’s ever had and the impact he gets to have on his community because of it is an honor. He doesn’t just spend his time sitting behind a bench; instead he actively engages with the defendants, helping them break away from an often dangerous cycle.
His involvement in therapeutic and mental health court, problem solving courts, as he calls them, get at the root of why people are committing crimes. Then there’s the Success Inside and Out conference where community members offer advice to inmates preparing for their release, encouraging them not to fall back into old habits. All of these programs started after Levy joined Juneau’s court system and he’s played a significant role in each. The programs have also allowed Levy to stay close to the people he’s handed sentences down to, which is something he values.
“It’s funny but people come to court and I don’t judge them, I don’t look and say this is a good person, this is a bad person. To me, most of the people I see in the court room really are decent people, but some of them struggle with huge, huge obstacles and the biggest ones are addiction and mental illness,” Levy said.
Then there’s the impact he’s had on his fellow judges as chair of the Judge Training Committee, a program that started the year Levy was sworn in and that he soon took over after he completed it.
In it, he teaches other judges the lessons he’s learned from his mentors and throughout his time on the bench. The most important lesson, and the one he said he would pass on to whoever takes his role in October, is to make everyone in the courtroom feel heard, respected and important.
“You have to ward off the temptation to say, ‘Well this isn’t very important, you know, I’ve seen this 50 times. You’ve been here three times already,’” Levy said. “(The issues) are very important to the people that are there in the courtroom and a judge who doesn’t understand that isn’t going to do a very good job.”
Despite these heavy roles in so many different parts of Juneau’s court system and a love for making a change when possible, Levy said he recognizes it’s the right time for him to walk away and enjoy some time with his loved ones and exploring the Alaskan landscape that drew him in all those years ago.
He looks forward to opening an email from one of his running group buddies and reading how great the weather is for a run then, knowing he doesn’t have to be in court at 8 a.m., lacing up his shoes to meet them.
“I’m looking forward to being able to not just look at the mountains, but to get up there,” he said.