Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Promoting Community Well Being

One of the parts of my job that I like best is when I get a chance to interact with people whose work I have read and admired over the years.  As it happens, I have had two such opportunities in the past few days.

Last week, I spent some time at the headquarters of the Marshall Project, the new criminal justice journalism project being edited by Bill Keller (of New York Times fame). And today I had a chance to sit down with Bruce Western at Harvard.  Among other things, Bruce is responsible for helping to put together the recent National Academy of Sciences study The Growth of Incarceration in the United States which has focused a great deal of attention on the problem of mass incarceration.

It turns out that there is significant overlap between Bruce's research and the work of the Center for Court Innovation.  In particular, we are both interested in thinking about how justice agencies might take a more expansive view of their roles, encouraging them to play an active role in promoting community well being at the local level.  Needless to say, this is one of the core goals of community courts.  We also talked about the challenges facing parolees returning to communities after time in prison; Bruce is currently working on a study that includes deep, qualitative interviews with parolees in Boston.

As it happens, the good folks at the Marshall Project recently ran a piece that teased out some of the preliminary findings from the Boston reentry study (entitled Meet Our Prisoners) that is well worth reading, particularly since it echoes many of the lessons that we are learning in places like Harlem and Crown Heights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Make It Happen

It would appear that spring is arriving in fits and starts here in New York City -- every sunny, warmish day seems to be matched by a cold, grey one.  Happily, this past Friday was one of the former, so I was in an upbeat mood when I arrived at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center for a discussion about Make It Happen.

Make It Happen is typical of a certain breed of program at the Center for Court Innovation.  These initiatives, which include Peacemaking Programs, Parent Support Programs, Child Witness Support Program, Westchester Court Education Initiative and others, have limited resources (no more than 2-3 staff members) but ambitious goals.

In the case of Make It Happen, we are trying to address trauma in the lives of young men (16-24) who have experienced violence in their lives.  Funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime, Make It Happen achieves its goal in two ways -- by engaging young people in workshops over the course of 10 weeks and by attempting to enhance the work of traditional victim service providers to encourage them to focus on the unique needs of young black men who are also crime victims.  One example of the latter is the Paving the Way conference that Make It Happen is helping to organize this coming week.

Kenton Kirby, who heads up Make It Happen, speaks eloquently about the challenges of working with a population that has traditionally been difficult for service providers to reach.  Make It Happen is a voluntary program, which puts the onus on Kirby to attract and retain participants.  That he has managed to engage dozens of young people so far is testimony to both his talent and the fact that the program is addressing a real gap in services.

Make It Happen is, of course, a companion piece to the work we are doing in Crown Heights (and other parts of Brooklyn) to prevent gun violence.  I am hoping we can continue to grow this portfolio in the months to come.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"It's A Crazy World"

This afternoon, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a panel on juvenile justice reform as part of the roll-out of Nell Bernstein's new book "Burning Down the House."  I took my family to the event for multiple reasons.  To be honest, part of my motivations were ulterior -- the panel gave me an excuse to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit currently at the museum.  But it is also true that I had multiple connections with the event.  For example, Bernstein's publisher (The New Press) also published my book "Good Courts."  And three of the panelists were drawn from organizations that the Center for Court Innovation has partnered with in the past (Vera Institute of Justice, the Brooklyn DA's Office, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation).

But the primary reason I went to the event was to support the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which was represented by Jasmine Bowie (a social worker) and Abdul Francis (a participant).   Together, Jasmine and Abdul helped to ground the conversation in the realities of life in central Brooklyn -- the pressures exerted by local gangs, the dire consequences of incarceration, the challenges of working with young people suffering from various forms of trauma.  "It's a crazy world," said Abdul at one point (or words to that effect).  More positively, Abdul also spoke about coming to the Justice Center as a mandated participant but then continuing on after his mandate, thanks in no small part to the efforts that Jasmine made to engage him in the various youth development programs offered by the Justice Center.  Clearly, for Abdul, connecting with the Justice Center has been a life-changing experience.

We have a lot of work to do before we realize the vision of a full-fledged, functioning courthouse in Brownsville.  But today was a nice reminder that we are doing a lot of good work on the ground even before the courthouse opens it doors.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Change Is Possible

I braved treacherous roads and frigid weather to make my way to Albany today for New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's final state of the judiciary address.  

Interestingly, Lippman made no reference to his departure from the bench at the end of this year. Instead, he articulated a broad and aggressive agenda designed to promote access to justice.  When I interviewed Lippman a few weeks ago, he spoke passionately of his desire to level the playing field in court, ensuring that all New Yorkers -- rich and poor -- have equal access to justice.  He hit this note hard in his speech today. 

Several Center for Court Innovation projects received mention in the speech.  First, Lippman pointed to the Brownsville Community Justice Center as part of a response to the current crisis in public confidence in justice:

"Healing the rift that exists between the justice system and many of our communities will not happen overnight...but change is possible, and we have seen it in community courts in Midtown Manhattan, Harlem, and Red Hook, Brooklyn...We must look for other places that would benefit from the community justice model.  One such place is Brownsville, Brooklyn...we are developing a community justice center for Brownsville that will provide off-ramps for local residents who come into contact with the justice system...I look forward to the justice system playing a lead role in bringing trust and optimism back to Brownsville."

Judge Lippman also announced the creation of a new program, Poverty Justice Solutions, that will take 20 newly-minted attorneys and place them in two-year fellowships with civil legal service providers in New York. According to Lippman, "These attorneys will work at different agencies but they will all be dedicated to the same goal: helping low-income New Yorkers preserve their housing and prevent homelessness."
I'm proud that the Center for Court Innovation will play a small role in this process.  We will administer Poverty Justice Solutions, which is being supported by funding from the New York State court system and the Robin Hood Foundation. 

Several other initiatives that the Center for Court Innovation has played a role in conceiving and/or implementing were featured in the address, including our efforts to improve the way that courts handle cases involving victims of human trafficking and the work that the New York courts have done to promote reforming the bail system and raising the age of criminal responsibility.

All in all, a good day in Albany, albeit quite different from what I expected.  I went expecting a wistful look backwards on Lippman's time in office.  What I got instead was a bold agenda for continued reform.  It would appear that Lippman is going to be extremely busy during his final year in office. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

At the Coalface

I'm in London at the moment, attending "Better Courts," a conference convened by the Centre for Justice Innovation and the new economics foundation.  It has been a well-organized and well-attended gathering -- several latecomers were actually denied entry in deference to Health and Safety regulations.

The principal takeaway for me so far (there is still another day to go) has been the sense that there is interesting, innovative work taking place on the ground (or "at the coalface" if you prefer) in the justice system in the UK.  This is one of the central arguments animating the Centre for Justice Innovation, which I chair.  At the Better Courts conference, we heard from magistrates in North London and Plymouth about their efforts to link low-level offenders to community-based social service providers.  We heard about family drug and alcohol courts that are attempting to fashion a new judicial approach to addiction. And we heard about efforts to rethink the court experience on behalf of victims and juveniles.  Phil Bowen of the Centre for Justice Innovation (pictured above) argued that the local magistracy could be a center of "practitioner-led innovation" in the UK.

The conference wasn't all seashells and balloons as the old basketball coach Al McGuire used to say.  The speakers acknowledged a number of significant obstacles to court reform in the UK, including funding limitations, a conservative legal culture, and the seeming disinterest of many national-level decision makers.  But in general, there was a spirit of hope and optimism and camaraderie among the speakers and the attendees.  It was heartening to be among so many government officials, academics and non-governmental organizations that are committed to the long, difficult work of changing the justice system.

It was also good to observe another significant milestone in the development of the Centre for Justice Innovation, from a subsidiary of the Center for Court Innovation to a full-fledged, locally-driven charity.  From my perspective, the Centre no longer feels dependent upon the reputation or expertise of the Center in New York -- it has its own credibility and its own agenda.  But the underlying values are consistent with what we are doing in the US.  While the delegates, vocabulary, and program models featured at the Better Courts conference are different from a gathering that we might convene in New York, if you take a step back, the approach is the same as the Center for Court Innovation's -- a cross-sector convening that encourages local innovation and that frames conversation in practical and non-ideological terms.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pro-active in the Pursuit of Justice

I had the pleasure of interviewing New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman at the Center for Court Innovation this morning in front of an audience of about 60 people.  We will release a video and an edited transcript down the road, so I don't want to say too much about the conversation here. But in general, it was a wide-ranging discussion where Judge Lippman offered his views on contentious issues (Mets v. Yankees), explained his judicial philosophy ("pro-active in the pursuit of justice"), defended the growth of split decisions during his term on the court of appeals ("the law is better served when there is sharp dissent among judges"), and praised Governor Cuomo for his recent efforts to raise the age of criminal responsibility.  Judge Lippman also touched on bail reform, civil legal services, alternatives to incarceration and a range of other topics.  Throughout it all, Judge Lippman was an enormously good sport, dealing with cheeky questions about his teenage years and his shopping habits with good humor and graciousness.

I will share more tidbits from the interview in the days to come.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Every Young Man Should Know About a Gun

In recent years, Newark Community Solutions has expanded beyond its base inside Newark's municipal court to incorporate a community-based outpost in the West Ward.  I spent time in both locations today and came away feeling good about our operations and optimistic about the capacity for change even in dire circumstances.

The programmatic focus of our work in the West Ward is an anti-violence program entitled Newark United Against Violence that includes targeted outreach, case management, and links to job training for local young people at high-risk of being shot (or being a shooter).

Spending a few hours with the team today, I was dumbfounded by the challenges that our participants must overcome -- absent parents, homelessness, substance abuse, educational deficits, histories of trauma...the list is daunting.  But against the odds, there are plenty of success stories among the dozens of people that Newark United Against Violence has served.

Two programmatic achievements struck a particular chord with me.  Amazingly, our team has encouraged multiple participants to turn themselves in to answer outstanding warrants.  Although we cannot guarantee leniency by the court, the outreach workers in Newark have convinced participants that it is in their long-term best interests to take care of the warrants rather than have a cloud over their heads that will complicate their lives for years to come.

Also impressive was the relationship between the outreach team and local police.  Talking to two officers today, it was clear that they had established a real relationship of trust and mutual support with the outreach team (which includes several individuals with a history of criminal involvement).  It was also clear that the police officers had come to rely on the program to help them intervene with troubled populations and tricky street situations -- instead of defaulting to arrest as their sole recourse.

After my visit to the West Ward, I made a pilgrimage to the Weequahic section of Newark to visit the house where my mom grew up.  My grandparents lived in Newark for many years (my grandfather commuted to a jewelry store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn every day), back when the city had a thriving Jewish community.  They moved out by the time I was born, but my mother is a wonderful storyteller about her childhood, so I still feel an emotional connection to the place -- which is one reason why I was so happy when fate led the Center for Court Innovation to work in Newark.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"The System Is The Punishment"

This morning, Crain's New York hosted a breakfast featuring Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.  It was a surprisingly combative forum, featuring tough Q and A from two Crain's editors and an emotional interruption from a woman whose daughter was killed in a traffic incident. 

Although Vance's speech began with a focus on cyber crime, he quickly moved to a discussion of race, police, and the current unrest in New York.  He talked about his experience as a junior attorney in criminal court and his realization that the vast majority of defendants were men of color.  According to Vance, this early experience led him to commission a study by the Vera Institute of Justice examining racial disparities and prosecutorial discretion in Manhattan.

Moving to policing, Vance said that he believed that "broken windows is never going away" because "communities want quality-of-life enforcement."  He also said that policing in New York City should look different in 2015 than it did in 2000 -- "more focused and more targeted."

Vance acknowledged that there was a real need to "restore trust" in the justice system and to rethink the response to misdemeanor offenses in particular.  In all too many cases, "the system is the punishment," admitted Vance.

Turning to solutions, the district attorney highlighted the work THAT is office has done to create a pilot youth diversion program in Harlem that will help teens apprehended for minor offenses avoid formal criminal prosecution.

As it happens, this is a program that we have had a role in helping to develop, in concert with the Manhattan DA's Office, the New York Police Department, the defense bar, and others.  The idea is simple: in lieu of going to court, participants will be linked to youth court, individual counseling and other alternative programming that we will provide out of the Harlem Community Justice Center.  (We will do something similar in Brownsville, in partnership with Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.)

These pilots, which will get underway next month, are purposefully small, but if they are successful, they have the potential to grow significantly -- incorporating more serious cases, older participants, and different neighborhoods.   More to come as these experiments get going...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Good News, Bad News

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

Drop the Bomb

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."