Wednesday, December 17, 2014
In years past, I have had to work hard to engage people outside of the criminal justice system in the idea of criminal justice reform. No longer. The events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island have pushed the topic of criminal justice onto the front pages of the papers. My neighbors and the parents of my kids' friends are suddenly interested in what I do for a living. That's good news.
The bad news is that the public conversation about criminal justice has become increasingly heated and polarized. This presents challenges for an organization like the Center for Court Innovation. Almost all of our operating programs are predicated on the active cooperation of the justice system -- not just courts, but probation, prosecutors, defenders, and police. We also pride ourselves on our ability to do deep, intensive work alongside local residents and community groups in places like Crown Heights, Brownsville, Harlem, Newark, and Red Hook -- neighborhoods where there is a profound sense of distrust and disengagement with government. In other words, we want to work with both justice agencies and the communities that are most upset with justice agencies. This can be a delicate balancing act.
As an agency, we are still trying to figure out how to navigate the current landscape. My hope is that when the public conversation starts to turn to solutions -- when people begin to ask, "How can we create stronger bonds of mutual engagement, respect, and accountability between justice agencies and the communities they exist to serve" -- there will be a great deal of interest in the kinds of work that the Center for Court Innovation does, whether it be our efforts to bring police and teens together, our work to reduce the use of jail, or our attempts to encourage justice agencies to treat defendants with dignity and respect.
Last week, we had federal judge John Gleeson (see photo above) come to speak at our midtown headquarters. Gleeson spoke eloquently about his efforts to change sentencing practice in the federal courts and to reduce the use of incarceration in particular. He may just be an extraordinarily gracious man, but Gleeson also talked about how he has drawn inspiration from some of the reforms that the Center for Court Innovation has helped to pilot in the state courts, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
Finally, a few recent press clips you may have missed:
Judge Wants to Overhaul NY's Bail System -- A WPIX report on New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's efforts to reduce pretrial detention, including the first-ever coverage of Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, our new supervised release program in Kings County.
Community Courts and the Future of the Criminal Justice System -- Pacific Standard reports on the Red Hook Community Justice Center and the importance of procedural justice.
The Conservative Case for Reforming the Police -- Slate discusses the existence of a vibrant right-wing criminal justice reform movement, argues for a more localized approach to justice, and highlights our work in Red Hook.
Monday, December 1, 2014
For the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about my hometown. I am a member of a relatively small group: people who were born and raised in Washington DC. While I have lived in New York since the early 1990s, I get back to Washington frequently. In fact, I spent a good chunk of last week there celebrating Thanksgiving with my family.
But that's not why DC has been on my mind.
I have been thinking about DC because I have been slowly making my way through the outstanding catalog that accompanied the Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s exhibit that the Corcoran Gallery put on a few years back.
The book primarily chronicles the two music scenes that developed along parallel tracks in DC when I was a teen: go-go (think: Trouble Funk) and hardcore (think: Minor Threat). But Pump Me Up is about more than music. It also documents the social context of DC in the 1980s. And that context was dominated by crime. The Washington of my youth was known as "the murder capital of the United States" because it had the highest per capita homicide rate of any American city.
To be honest, the violence associated with the drug trade was not part of my daily routine; the neighborhoods where I lived and went to school were not shooting zones. But I don't think anyone who lived in DC in the '80s was unaffected by crime. Almost all of my friends were mugged, some at gunpoint. And huge swaths of the city were essentially off-limits to me growing up.
Hovering over all of this was the issue of race. The DC I grew up in was a segregated city in many respects. The disparities between the white neighborhoods and the black neighborhoods were both obvious and painful, particularly given how close many of the most blighted and dangerous neighborhoods were to some of the most powerful symbols of our democracy -- the White House, Congress, and other federal buildings.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my childhood had a profound impact on my career trajectory. Having spent my formative years in a city that felt unsafe and balkanized, I think it is no coincidence that I have spent my professional life trying in my own small way to bring disparate groups together to make neighborhoods safer. I think a lot of my childhood friends who gravitated toward public interest work would probably say something similar. (This includes my old soccer teammate Greg Kaufmann, the editor of Talk Poverty, a website that is currently doing a special feature on criminal justice. I will be making a contribution later this week.)
For many years, the symbol of Washington's unrealized potential as a city was its troubled mayor, Marion Barry, who died last week. Barry's drug problems, womanizing, demagoguery, and cronyism provided his critics with ample ammunition. But he also did a lot of good for Washington, which Pump Me Up underlines through a series of interviews with local artists, many of whom point to Barry's summer youth employment programs as key turning points in their lives.
The New York Times was also even-handed in recounting Barry's legacy. In fact, the last word in the Times obit actually went to a former boss of mine, Sam Smith, the editor of the Progressive Review. Smith said of Barry: "It's like going out into a field and seeing an old rusting-out hulk of a car and trying to imagine what it was like when it was brand-new. What people are seeing now is that corroded shell of what Barry was, and if you don't remember that, it's very hard to see."
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
The last couple of weeks at work have been kinda lousy ones for me, full of setbacks, mishaps, and frustrations. Today offered a bit of a break. It began with a breakfast sponsored by the Citizens Crime Commission featuring a lecture by federal Judge Robert Katzmann. Katzmann talked about the problems faced by immigrants in the legal system, including a new program that he helped birth: the Immigrant Justice Corps.
Learning more about what Katzmann is up to was fun. Even better was this afternoon's graduation of the Parent Support Program in Kings County Family Court. I've written about the program before, so I won't rehash it here, but it was inspiring to see the real-life impact of our efforts to rethink the child support process. A couple of dozen fathers were honored today. All had managed to reconnect to their kids and make meaningful child support payments in the process. Alan Farrell, an assistant deputy commissioner at New York City's Human Resources Administration (pictured above), offered the keynote address. But the final word of the day went to Magistrate Nicholas Palos who told the graduates, "I don't want to see you back here again!"
In truth, the last two weeks haven't been all dismal. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed that I wrote entitled "A Surprising Portrait of the Misdemeanor Criminal." (I didn't choose the title.) And Corrections Today ran a nice review of my book Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
One of the secrets to success in New York City has always been real estate. This is true even for non-profit organizations like the Center for Court Innovation. A stable and (reasonably) affordable home base is an essential prerequisite for all of the things we hope to achieve in the world -- improving New York City neighborhoods, changing the life trajectories of vulnerable individuals, spreading new ideas about how to reform the justice system, etc.
I write all of this to explain why this week has been a sad one for me. On November 4th, longtime friend of the Center for Court Innovation Glenn Markman passed away. In addition to being a donor to the Center, Glenn was a real estate broker for Cushman and Wakefield. A few years ago, we worked with Glenn to figure out where the headquarters of the Center should be for the next decade. The assignment was to find a space that we could afford, that was easy to reach for visitors from out of town, and that provided access to all of our operating projects in the five boroughs and Newark.
While we are a decent-sized non-profit, the Center was a small client in Glenn's portfolio. He certainly had clients that were more high-profile as well. But I never felt like we received less than Glenn's full attention. He worked diligently to find us multiple options and to help negotiate terms once we decided that we wanted to stay in west Midtown.
In short, Glenn helped provide us with a good home. In the years since, I've gotten to know Glenn outside of work as well. He was a stand-up guy. He loved Brooklyn and saw the potential in the borough well before it became an international brand. He was devoted to his family and talked about his kids with the kind of passion that you hope to see in fathers. And he was committed to the idea of "giving back" that went beyond the usual platitudes. I will miss him. My thoughts go out to his family.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
I have spent the better part of this week in London checking in on the work of our friends and partners at the Centre for Justice Innovation UK.
The highlight of my visit was a trip to the Highbury Magistrates Court in north London, a large, grey building that sends a forbidding message to defendants and public alike.
With the active encouragement of several magistrates, the Centre is working to create a small problem-solving office in the courthouse that will serve low-level defendants who are not currently being aided by Probation. The office will be staffed by the local Citizens Advice Bureau, a charity that provides walk-in assistance to residents with housing, consumer debt, and other problems. Their staffer will perform assessments and link defendants to community-based services.
The project is in some ways a modest one; once operational, it will serve a limited number of people in a single courthouse. Still, it represents an important foot in the door. If all goes well, the Centre will hopefully be able to build on this foundation and add additional components in the days to come.
In talking to the magistrates about why they have championed this project for minor offenders, they pointed to the example of the Red Hook Community Justice Center and mentioned the research about the importance of procedural justice as key motivating factors.
I look forward to seeing how things progress in north London.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
This morning, the Manhattan Institute sponsored a briefing entitled, "20 Years of Broken Windows Policing: What's Ahead for Public Safety in New York City?" The panel featured NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Citizens Crime Commission Executive Director Richard Aborn, and former NY State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin.
In framing the conversation, moderator Errol Louis began by arguing that the public consensus about how to keep New York City safe is in the process of unraveling as broken windows policing has come under fire from the media, elected officials, and the advocacy community.
In response, Commissioner Bratton launched a spirited defense of broken windows policing, making the case that addressing "incivility" has not only been crucial to reducing crime in New York City over the past generation, but will continue to be a crucial tactic as the NYPD moves forward under his leadership. Bratton argued that, contrary to some impressions, New Yorkers are demanding quality-of-life enforcement from the police, pointing out that the vast majority of misdemeanor arrests in the city are the direct result of complaints made by local residents via 911 or 311 calls.
While Bratton and the other panelists all defended broken windows policing, they also acknowledged that this brand of enforcement needs to be done "constitutionally" and "consistently" across different parts of the city.
Vance called for community engagement with law enforcement, precinct-level diversion of minor cases out of the courts, and a significant investment in rethinking the handling of misdemeanor cases in general. In essence, Vance was making the same argument that we have made in advancing community courts: that a misdemeanor case is a window of opportunity, a moment to intervene meaningfully in an individual's life through the provision of services rather than jail sanctions.
Both Vance and Richard Aborn talked about decriminalizing certain kinds of minor misbehavior. In addition, Aborn talked about creating neighborhood panels that would engage local residents in resolving minor cases without a formal court hearing. Here again, Aborn was echoing the logic behind several Center for Court Innovation programs, including youth court and our peacemaking experiments.
At several points, the panelists pointed out that the reductions in crime in New York have been accompanied by significant reductions in the use of jail and prison. Michael Benjamin explicitly credited alternative-to-incarceration programs and drug courts with helping to achieve this result.
A number of the panelists also highlighted the need to enhance the legitimacy of the police, particularly in minority neighborhoods. This too has been an area of emphasis for the Center for Court Innovation.
Will the NYPD figure out a way to continue to reap the benefits of broken windows policing while addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised with its implementation? It will be fascinating to see how things unfold in the days to come.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Last night, the Center for Court Innovation was honored by Groundswell at their annual benefit. For those who haven't been, I recommend the event highly. Each year, Groundswell gets their friends to donate art for a live and silent auction. The result is an event that is one part gallery show, one part cocktail party, and one part educational seminar. The bottom line is that I learned a lot and had a great time doing so.
When it was my time to speak, I was asked the question: "Why does the Center for Court Innovation use art to engage young people?" This is what I said:
You know, whole books and entire careers have been devoted to trying to answer the question “why art”? I’m not sure in the 60 seconds I've been allotted here tonight that I have anything original to add to the mix. I will say that I believe (to paraphrase Leon Botstein) that the visual arts are not a luxury good but one of the vital signs by which we determine the health and vibrancy of our society. And I believe in the power of art to inspire and stimulate change at the neighborhood level, because I've seen it happen with my own two eyes.
But really, instead of answering “why art?” I want to answer a slightly different question: “why Groundswell?” Why of all the hundreds of wonderful organizations in NYC have we chosen to partner with Groundswell again and again in so many different locations?
The answer is simple: even though the Center for Court Innovation and Groundswell are very different organizations with very different cultures, we share some basic values. At our core, we both believe that young people, including kids who have been involved in the justice system, can be a tremendous force for good in New York. And we believe that if we tap into this force, we can help make our neighborhoods safer and stronger without sending more people to Rikers Island.
For the past two decades, we have been proving that this is possible in places like Red Hook and Brownsville and Crown Heights. Our partnership with Groundswell has been an important part of this story. What Groundswell brings to the table is something pretty magical. They bring a remarkable ability to engage even the most difficult-to-reach kids. And they bring an ability to transform symbols of disorder and despair into works of art and sources of community pride. That’s why we keep turning to Groundswell – because they deliver the goods again and again.
Friday, October 10, 2014
One of my college housemates, Anthony Innes Stephenson, passed away last week.
I met Tony my freshman year at Wesleyan. One of our first encounters was a game of one-on-one basketball. It was a classic male bonding/testing-each-other-out moment. It still pains me to admit this, but he absolutely smoked me -- I may not have scored a single basket. Tony possessed a quick first step and an accurate jumper that I was always late in trying to block. (Once I figured out that Tony was one of the rare right-handed players who preferred to shoot going to his left, I was at least able to keep up with him a bit.)
Over the years, I played countless hours of basketball with and against Tony. If you buy the argument that sports reveals character (and I do), what Tony's game said about him was this: he was a gentle soul. Unlike so many other playground warriors, Tony was not driven to dominate or impose his will on a game, although he most certainly had the talent to do so. He was a graceful and gracious athlete who I think appreciated the game more for its aesthetic qualities than for some of the other reasons that people typically gravitate towards sports (exercise, teamwork, competition, etc).
The other arena where Tony's personal qualities revealed themselves was his writing. Man, he was a good writer. At his best, he was a bit like Woody Allen: neurotic, self-deprecating, caustic, funny as hell. Digging back through his letters and emails, I can't help but smile at his capacity for mockery. Although he took aim at everyone and everything in sight (including, it must be said, himself), Tony's jibes never felt mean-spirited to me. He didn't seek to hurt or humiliate, just to expose pretensions and communicate insights through humor. I can't speak for others, but I certainly learned things by seeing myself reflected through Tony's prose.
In the years since we graduated from college, I have seen Tony infrequently -- he rarely traveled outside of his beloved San Francisco. I saw him last six months ago. His hair may have been grey but he had the same boyish grin and mischievous perspective on the world. We had dinner in Chinatown and talked for a couple of hours about the usual stuff: basketball, family, politics, mutual friends and acquaintances. When I left, I made a mental note to myself that I wanted to correspond with him more frequently, that I needed more of Tony's (authorial) voice in my life. I am sad that I won't get this chance.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Last night the New York City Bar hosted a panel honoring the late Alfred Siegel and his legacy of advancing youth justice reform. It was a lovely event. Dozens of Alfred's friends, family members, work colleagues and partners came out to celebrate Alfred's many contributions to advancing the cause of justice in New York. Happily, they were joined by a number of people who had never met Alfred but who were just interested in learning more about the man who served as a powerful moral compass for just about everyone who knew him. I think they left with a full portrait of a man who managed to do a lot of good in the world.
While there were many poignant moments, they were balanced both by moments of levity and by discussion of a set of concrete Family Court and Criminal Court reforms that Alfred helped realize. I loved hearing from Alfred's two sons, both of whom exhibit so many of the qualities that I loved in Alfred: poise, self-deprecation, decency. Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance captured Alfred's sense of humor and his unique ability to get things done. Adam Mansky, who moderated the panel, captured him best when he said:
Alfred was not an outside agitator, standing apart from the system; nor was he paralyzed by its injustices. Rather, he continually engaged the justice system in the process of change and improvement, using every trick in the book to push his shoulder against the yoke of bureaucratic inertia, business as usual, fear of change and petty politics; and in doing so, improved the lives of young people and their families, as well as adults caught up in the system.
At the Center for Court Innovation, we've created a special scholarship fund in Alfred's memory which will help defray tuition expenses for a current or prospective student at John Jay College. For more information, click here.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Yesterday, New York City's Criminal Justice Agency held a special luncheon at John Jay College to celebrate dozens of employees who had been with the agency for more than 25 years (including the agency's director, Jerry McElroy).
For those that don't know, CJA is New York City's pretrial agency (I sit on their board). They conduct pre-arraignment interviews with criminal defendants in order to provide a recommendation to judges about the likelihood that a defendant will return to court. In this way, CJA has facilitated the release of hundreds of thousands of defendants over the years and helped reduce the number of New Yorkers who are held on Rikers Island.
In addition to performing this vital function, CJA also operates two supervised release programs for felony defendants (one in Queens, the other in Manhattan) and conducts original research at the behest of criminal justice officials.
My first encounter with CJA happened some 20 years ago during the early planning for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. When we wanted to make a case to funders or elected officials for why a new response to misdemeanor crime was needed in southwest Brooklyn, we relied on data generously and comprehensively supplied by CJA. (Special thanks to Frank Sergi at CJA, who was enormously patient in coaching me through the statistics. Special thanks as well to Peter Kiers, pictured above, who has always known that I was in the pretrial business even when I didn't realize it myself.)
The highlight of yesterday's event for me were the speeches by two of CJA's "founding fathers" -- Herb Sturz and Jeremy Travis. Both talked about CJA's rich history and how the agency grew from a small pilot project based in Manhattan and operated by the Vera Institute of Justice into a citywide organization with hundreds of employees. (For anyone interested in CJA's history, including the role played by the Son of Sam, I encourage you to check out Malcolm Feeley's excellent Court Reform on Trial from Quid Pro Books.)
Several of the speakers yesterday made the point that we are living through the most exciting moment for the pretrial field since the Bail Reform Act on 1964. Risk and needs assessment, more informed decision making, and reducing the use of detention are hot issues at the moment in the world of criminal justice. I am hoping that CJA (and the Center for Court Innovation, to be honest) have a big role to play in advancing these ideas in the not-too-distant future, both here in New York and around the country.