Friday, July 8, 2016

An Object Lesson

For those of us who care about the fate of the American justice system, the past few days have been tough ones.  

I wish I had something wise or original to say about the events in Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota.  But I don't.  All I can do is echo the words of better writers than me.  

Like Jelani Cobb

"This week has become a grotesque object lesson in gun culture, one that points to a conclusion that we could have and should have drawn long ago—that the surfeit of weapons at our disposal and the corresponding fears that they induce create new hazards."

"By having a widely armed citizenry, we create a situation in which gun violence becomes a common occurrence, not the rarity it ought to be and is everywhere else in the civilized world. That this happened amid a general decline in violence throughout the Western world only serves to make the crisis more acute; America’s gun-violence problem remains the great and terrible outlier."

“Let's be clear: there’s no possible justification for these kinds of attacks, or any violence against law enforcement.”

"We must change the laws and the culture that has led to our country having a gun murder rate that is 25 times that of other developed nations."

Like these and other commentators, I deplore the incidents in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul.  I grieve for those directly and indirectly affected by violence. And I pray that we as a society can change the dynamics that have led us to this point.  This includes the easy availability of firearms.  This includes inflammatory political rhetoric that encourages extremism.  And this includes the steady drumbeat of tragic cases involving the use of force against people of color.  
It is easy to draw a line connecting Alton Sterling and Philando Castile with Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and so many other cases where it seems like our justice system has done the exact opposite of what it is intended to do.  (And we shouldn't forget that over the years, there have been hundreds of less well-documented cases of bullying, harassment, and excessive force that have not gone viral. These victims are no less real just because they are unknown.)
I must confess that at moments like these I find myself struggling to keep at bay feelings of outrage, despair, and cynicism.  To protect and serve?  Courtesy, professionalism, and respect?  Fair and equal treatment?  These slogans can seem like cruel jokes when compared to the real-life workings of a justice system too often defined by brutality and bigotry. 
But I have found that I cannot work effectively from a place of outrage, despair, and cynicism.  Indeed, I have found that the only way to achieve positive change is by being positive. 
And so, at the risk of sounding naive or out of step with the current moment, here are a few things that I feel positive about: 
I think that all of these efforts seek to enhance the administration of justice, reduce potential sources of conflict, and make the world, however marginally, a better place. And all of these efforts disproportionately benefit people of color.  (I'm also proud to say that the Center for Court Innovation is playing a supporting role in many of these initiatives.)
It is a cliche to quote Martin Luther King Jr., so I generally try to avoid it. But at low moments, I find myself drawn to one of the lines from the famous "How Long, Not Long" speech that he delivered fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  
Despite the events of the past couple of days, I have faith that this is true.  And that is why I work at the Center for Court Innovation.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Just Another Thursday

Just another Thursday at the Center for Court Innovation.  Well, except for:

  • The Association for Conflict Resolution honored us with its 2016 Achievement Award for our commitment to finding creative ways to resolve conflicts.  Among other things, the Association highlighted the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, our efforts to promote peacemaking, and our work with parolees at the Harlem Reentry Court.  When it was my time to speak, I talked about how much inspiration we took in the early days of the Center from restorative justice, community mediation, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution.  Indeed, many of the hallmarks of the Center -- a willingness to rethink the adversarial process, a commitment to treating individuals with dignity and respect, an emphasis on engaging the public in doing justice -- can be traced back to the alternative dispute resolution movement.
  • Speaking of the Reentry Court, tonight was another successful graduation ceremony for parolees in Harlem, highlighted by a keynote speech from Glenn Martin of JustLeadership USA.

  • Meanwhile, in Red Hook, we hosted a graduation ceremony for the Red Hook Youth Court with a guest appearance by City Council Member Carlos Menchaca.  The event also honored the Target Corporation for its work to promote innovative public safety partnerships.
  • Finally, there was a farewell gathering today for Patricia Henry, who has been a friend to the Center for Court Innovation for almost the entire history of the organization.  Over the years, Pat has held numerous positions of influence, including stints in the NYC Criminal Justice Coordinator's Office and the Office of Court Administration, and years on the bench as a judge, including her work at the Brooklyn Integrated Domestic Violence Court.  In all of these roles, Pat worked hard to do the right thing.  And she did it with smarts and a keen sense of humor.  She was also unflappable.  I experienced this first-hand when I flew out to Reno with her for an event convened by the National Judicial College.   We missed our connection and ended up taking a small plane late at night.  The crew announced before the flight took off that there would be no food service and no bathroom usage due to extreme turbulence.  As the plane bounced around in the midst of a thunderstorm, I must admit that I was on the brink of panic.  I didn't want Pat to see me in a state of high anxiety so I avoided eye contact with her until we took a particularly big lurch.  At that point, I felt I had no choice but to look over to check in on her.  I needn't have worried: Pat was sleeping like a baby.  She is one cool customer.  We'll miss her. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

The High Priestess of Justice

Last night, I went to a farewell party to celebrate my good friend Michele Sviridoff, who is retiring after I don't know how many years of public service.  I was asked to make a toast to Michele.  This is what I said:

I first met Michele back in the early 1990s when I joined the Midtown Community Court.

I was led down this particular rabbit hole by John Feinblatt.  I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not, but John seemed to have overlooked a few telling facts during the interview process.

First of all, he didn’t tell me that he intended to carve out an office for me out of the staff lunchroom, immediately guaranteeing that I would be the least popular employee in the building.  And he certainly didn’t prepare me for the personalities that I would encounter.  In addition to lifelong frenemy Eric Lee, there was the world-famous city planner who was stationed in a temporary desk by the copy machine.  And there was the former embezzler who ran the office with an iron fist until it turned out that maybe he wasn’t as rehabilitated as we thought.

In this mix, Michele stood out as a beacon of sanity and warmth.  For reasons that are obscure to me, she took an immediate interest in my well-being and helped me to learn how to navigate the workplace.

As I got to know her better, I learned that Michele was just as mysterious as everyone else at  Midtown. She was the czar of research, but when I asked her about her educational background, it turned out she was a literary theorist and not a criminologist or a statistician.  She seemed to have no interest whatsoever in making money, but she somehow knew the value of every piece of real estate in Manhattan.

But most intriguingly of all, even though she was the most rigorous thinker I had ever met – a distinction that she still holds, by the way – she also was someone who did regular Tarot card readings for the people in her life.

So in honor of Michele, I created this Tarot Card: The High Priestess of Justice.  This is the inscription:

The High Priestess of Justice represents Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding.  The High Priestess signifies both academic rigor and deep empathy.  She has a profound mastery of data and the justice system that she uses to influence policy and advance significant reforms.  She also possesses a keen understanding of people that she uses to teach and nurture.

Anyone who is fortunate to draw the High Priestess of Justice tarot card will find their intelligence and creativity increased.  All hail the High Priestess of Justice!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Art and Science

This past week was a busy one for the Center for Court Innovation:  

We hosted a gathering of state drug court coordinators at our headquarters in Manhattan. 

The MacArthur Foundation announced the 20 winners of its Safety and Justice Challenge.  Alongside a handful of other organizations, we are providing technical assistance to the winning jurisdictions as they move to implement plans to reduce their local jail populations.

Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman convened the first meeting of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration.  We are helping to support the Commission by providing research and strategic advice. At the first meeting, our research team offered the Commission members an overview of the history of Rikers Island. 

The US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance announced that 10 cities had received funds to launch or enhance community courts.  We helped BJA to implement this grant solicitation as part of our ongoing effort to spread the idea of community justice. 

Speaking of community justice, perhaps the biggest event of the last week was Community Justice 2016, the international summit that we convened in Chicago.  More than 400 criminal justice reformers representing more than 100 jurisdictions attended the conference.  It was the fourth such summit that we have put together, each one a little bigger than the one before.  

As part of my welcoming remarks, I talked a little bit about what originally attracted me to this field  more than two decades ago: 

In the early 1990s, I moved to New York City to help plan a community court in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

I made this choice then  and I have continued to make this choice ever since – because I believe that reforming the justice system is both an art and a science. 

Make no mistake: to do this right, we need to be nerds.  We need to be clear thinkers who look at the data and consult the latest social science, particularly when it comes to risk and needs assessment.

But we also need to be guided by compassion and remember that the justice system isn’t an abstract process or a series of numbers on a page – it is a collection of people.  And no matter what role they have been assigned in this drama – be they police officers or perpetrators, concerned citizens or community corrections officers  all of these actors are driven by the same motivations and idiosyncracies that always drive human behavior. We can never hope to improve justice unless we wrestle with this messy reality.

I think Community Justice 2016 honored both sides of the art/science divide.  Several sessions were devoted to encouraging jurisdictions to adopt programs and practices with a solid research foundation. And we also spent a fair amount of time talking about how justice agencies can engage the public effectively, with a particular focus on the challenges of communicating effectively with communities of color with low levels of trust in government.  I left Chicago feeling hopeful about the possibilities of advancing a brand of criminal justice reform that is both thoughtful and humane.  At least, that's what we are committed to trying to do at the Center for Court Innovation. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Humor, Dignity and Thoughtfulness

Funeral services for my sister-in-law, Anne Louise Bayly Berman, were held this past Sunday at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC.  Here is what I said in my eulogy:

When I first met Annie Lou, I was mildly suspicious of her.

This was due primarily to my natural protective instincts on behalf of my kid brother MJ.  Like many older siblings, I want the best for my brother. Translated, this means that I tended to view his romantic partners through a particularly critical lens.

But I must confess that part of my skepticism was related to Annie Lou’s personality.  I think it is fair to say that I had never met anyone as relentlessly positive and upbeat as Annie Lou.  Anything my kids did, no matter how annoying, she greeted with enthusiasm.  Any idea I floated was a decent one.  She was game for just about any plan.

When it quickly became apparent that MJ was serious about Annie Lou, I took my parents aside and expressed my concern: “When do you think we will meet the real Annie Lou?” I asked.  “No one could possibly be this nice all the time.”

As I got to know her better, I realized that I had indeed met the real Annie Lou.  At her core, she was a person who, unlike me, constantly sought to identify the best in people.  She really was that nice. 

Now, sometimes, we use the word “nice” as the faintest of praise, to denote someone who is mild and inoffensive.  But Annie Lou was anything but milquetoast.  In appearance, Annie Lou might have blended in seamlessly with the other young moms of Northwest DC.  But beneath that exterior was someone with a unique sense of style and broad interests, including culture both high and low.

Annie Lou was, in a word, cool.

But beyond her coolness and her affability, what I respected most about my sister-in-law was her integrity.  Her sense of decency extended both near and far.  She was a generous and warm protector of her family and others in her immediate orbit.  She was also interested in promoting the greater good, be it the Horace Mann school community or Baby Love DC or her hometown of Washington, which she loved so dearly. 

Over the years, my mom, the great Michele Berman, has talked about how Annie Lou changed the Berman family.  Now, I wasn’t aware that anything in particular needed changing – I thought we were doing pretty good before Annie Lou came along. 

But my mom, as always (or nearly always), was correct: Annie Lou was a binding agent.  She not only created special individual connections with each of us, she also actively sought to strengthen our connections with each other. She was, to paraphrase Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink, the dynamic force that brought disparate elements together.  

The word I have heard used most often over the past few days with regard to Annie Lou’s passing is “unfair.”  And when we are confronted with events that don’t square with our sense of justice, we often turn to religion to help us make sense of them. 

Unfortunately, I am not a religious man.  What little spirituality I have is an ad-hoc mixture of Judaism, Quaker ideas I picked up in high school, and mumbo jumbo lifted from cheesy science-fiction films like Star Wars. 

But here are three things I believe.

I believe that in her own small way, Annie Lou was a light unto the nations, a moral exemplar for those of us who had the good fortune to see her kindness in action.

I believe that all of us gathered here today will carry a little spark of Annie Lou forward with us, whether it be her generosity of spirit, her relentless search for beauty, or her strength in the face of adversity.

Finally, I believe that the force is particularly strong with these ones.  Charlie, Teddy, Scottie and Nell – I envy you.  I envy you because of all the people in the entire world, you have the most Annie Lou inside of you.  In the days to come, I know that you will tap into this secret super power to become the best people you can be.

One of things that I have always loved about my father is his clear thinking about what success in life looks like.  Although he was and is a successful businessman, he never sent the message to MJ or me that we should measure ourselves by the money we made.  This is a trait that Annie Lou shared.  In the mission statement that she created for her family, she made this abundantly clear.  “With humor and dignity and thoughtfulness you can have a great life,” she wrote.  Humor, dignity and thoughtfulness.  Annie Lou’s time with us was too short, but by embodying the values of humor, dignity and thoughtfulness, she showed us what it means to lead a great life.     

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Annie Lou

My sister-in-law, Annie Lou Bayly Berman, passed away on Easter Sunday at the age of 40.  She was one of my favorite people.  But this doesn't make me unique: she was among the most popular and well-loved people I have ever met.  This affection was well-earned -- Annie Lou was, in my experience, unfailingly upbeat, warm, and interesting.  She was a lot of fun.  And she had exceptional friendship skills -- she was generous with both her time and her praise.  She had an ineffable quality -- one felt special to be in her orbit.  I tried to capture a bit of this in the obituary that I put together with her sister Johanna.  Here is an excerpt: 

Anne Louise Bayly Berman, who was known as Annie Lou, passed away on Easter Sunday at her home in upper Northwest Washington.  

Smart, funny, and outgoing, Annie Lou was a connector -- someone who made matches, knitted people together, and created community wherever she went. She did this first and foremost among her immediate family, which included her husband MJ Berman and her beloved children Charles (Charlie), Theodore (Teddy), Louisa (Scottie), and Helene (Nell).  

In the mission statement she created for her family, Annie Lou wrote, "Our family believes in a life of kindness, adventure, humor, beauty, and love, thoughtfully and responsibly lived."

Annie Lou more than lived up to this pledge.  A 3rd generation Washingtonian, she was passionately committed to her city. According to an interview with Washingtonian magazine, Annie Lou felt the most romantic spot in Washington was "the crumpled-down aqueduct near Key Bridge.  It's where I got engaged.  We went on a bike ride, got engaged, went to Cafe Milano and then went swimming.  It was a perfect day for me."

Annie Lou's commitment to Washington was manifest in her professional life as a writer, event planner and tastemaker.  And it was manifest in her charitable work as well. 

Annie Lou was the founding editor of Daily Candy DC.  Her work at Daily Candy involved offering daily recommendations about shopping, food, and culture to thousands of subscribers -- including tips for last-minute Christmas shopping at CVS (a stunt that was covered by USA Today). 

Before joining Daily Candy, Annie Lou was active in the Washington art world.  This included her work at the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, where she was responsible for conducting oral history interviews with a range of important contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Shepard Fairey.  She was also a significant volunteer contributor in the early years of Artomatic DC, the annual non-profit arts festival. 

In addition to Artomatic, Annie Lou's voluntary efforts included her service as a founding member of BabyLove DC, a non-profit that provides baby gear and supplies to those in need.  She also served on the board of directors of the DC Public Library Foundation and Blue Igloo Playgroup.  She was active in the PTA of Horace Mann Elementary School and was a teacher for Roots of Empathy.

Annie Lou was born on Christmas Day 1975.  I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that she was born on Christmas and died on Easter.   

She is a real loss for my family -- and for the city of Washington.

Annie Lou was an early adopter of the Internet, creating a variety of web content including videos, blogs, and other written material.  I have assembled a few of Annie Lou's greatest hits here.  Taken together, I think they offer a sense of what was special about her. 

Quick Picks from a Drugstore Santa -- Annie Lou goes shopping with USA Today 

Stop Nader -- Video of Annie Lou as a repentant Nader voter

Favorites -- Washingtonian magazine interview

"Depends on the lighting" -- Fishbowl DC interview

Sweet Smarts -- Baltimore Sun story

Shepard Fairey -- Annie Lou oral history interview

...For Ladies -- Annie Lou's series of instructional videos 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Blueprint for Justice

Today marked a big step forward for former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's effort to study the feasibility of closing Rikers Island: he announced the two dozen members of his independent commission.  (See here for coverage and the list of members.)

As part of the announcement, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, "I gave this Commission a difficult but critically important mandate to create a blueprint for justice in New York City...I know the task ahead will not be easy."

I agree with the Speaker -- the obstacles are enormous.  (See this Newsday article for a glimpse of just a few of the challenges.)  One of my very real concerns for the Lippman Commission (its official name is the "Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform") is that it has engendered hopes that will be exceedingly difficult to meet.

The City of New York isn't closing Rikers Island any time soon.  Before the City can even begin to wrestle with the difficult logistical issues (where would you place smaller jail facilities?  how would these be paid for?), there is a need to figure out how to continue to reduce the jail population, which, by the way, is already lower than it has been for more than a generation.

Despite the challenges, we at the Center for Court Innovation have signed on to assist the Lippman Commission in any way the judge sees fit to use us.  In many respects, the Lippman Commission is a logical next step for us.  Many of our operating programs (such as the Midtown Community Court, Bronx Community Solutions, and Red Hook Community Justice Center) have been working to provide alternatives to jail for years.  And we are currently working with the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice on a number of new initiatives, including supervised release programs in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx that are attempting to reduce the use of pretrial detention.  (See this piece from Vice.)  Is it possible to crank these kinds of efforts up to a level that would be sufficient to even begin to contemplate closing Rikers?  We look forward to finding out.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Cultural Notes

To help chase away the late winter blahs, I have been actively scouting around for little doses of joy.  Here are a few things that fit that description for me:

Lionel Messi -- Anyone who likes sport or, dare I say it, beauty, should be catching every minute of Messi they can while he is still at his peak.  Unfortunately, this week that will mean watching him destroy my beloved Arsenal.

Noises Off -- I have seen this show three times, including a recent trip to the Roundabout's version on Broadway.  I don't think I have ever laughed harder at the theater.  After the laugher fades, you realize what a truly amazing piece of writing this is.

The Feelies -- I've written before about my affection for the Feelies, a band that I think has aged remarkably well.  They marked their 40th anniversary this year by re-issuing their two best albums, complete with new material, including a killer live version of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

Emma -- At the end of last year, my wife helped to organize an event at the New School to honor the 200th anniversary of Emma.  It was a good fun, but my enjoyment was slightly dampened by the fact that I hadn't read the novel.  I recently rectified that problem and can now say with even greater force that it is worth checking out the panels that the New School put together.

Bruce Springsteen -- I was a huge Springsteen fan in my youth.  When I fell in love with hip-hop in the late '80s, I started to gravitate away from the Boss, but the roots are still there.  The  lavish re-release of The River has been a good excuse for me to listen to Springsteen again.  There are lots of gems in the box set -- and in this free download of a vintage show from that era: Tempe, Arizona 1980.

The Clam -- Eating out is one of my favorite things to do in New York City.  The thing that I have eaten most recently that brought a smile to my face was the lobster roll/fried clam slider at The Clam in the Village.

Stephen Curry -- The conventional wisdom seems to be that there has never been another player in the NBA quite like Steph Curry.  I suppose that this is true, although I agree with Phil Jackson that a case can be made for Chris Jackson/Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (not to mention Steve Nash).  I actually think the best analogy for Curry at the moment is Messi -- another great little man who seems to be operating at a different speed than those around him.  The shot he hit to beat Oklahoma City the other week is worth watching again and again for its sheer audacity and the great call by Mike Breen.  "Bang!" indeed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Maggie Cassidy

Last week brought sad news for those of us at the Center for Court Innovation -- we learned of the premature passing of our former colleague, Maggie Cassidy.  (See here for obituary.)  

Maggie stopped working for us a few years ago (to attend medical school), but she left behind a powerful legacy.  She was an important player in our growth and maturation as an agency.  As a member of our development and fiscal teams, Maggie was responsible for ensuring that our operating programs had the resources they needed to serve their clients well.  Sometimes there is a disconnect in non-profit agencies between those who do the work on the ground and those who have administrative jobs.  That wasn't the case with Maggie: she was someone with an instinctive understanding of the difficulties of working with challenging populations, be they defendants, victims, or community residents.  She was fiercely committed to facilitating the work of our program staff and was an advocate for them both internally and externally. 

Her work ethic was one reason why Maggie was a particularly beloved staff member around here. The other reason was her personality.  Put simply, Maggie was smart as hell and funny as heck.  She was a quick study, capable of cutting through complicated rhetoric to understand the root of problems. Her intelligence was complimented by the brightness of her smile and her ability to see the humor even in difficult situations.  

We will miss her.  We send our thoughts and best wishes to her family. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

"We Will Pull No Punches"

Yesterday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito delivered her annual state of the city address in the Bronx.  The big news is that Mark-Viverito has launched an independent commission, to be chaired by former NY State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, to create a new "blueprint for justice for New York City."  Specifically, Mark-Viverito charged the Commission with reducing pre-trial detention, "utilizing more community courts," and getting the population of Rikers Island "to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality."

To state the obvious, this is an ambitious agenda.  But I can think of no one more equipped to take this on than Judge Lippman.  "We will pull no punches," Lippman told reporters yesterday. "We will look at Rikers like it's never been looked at before, and with no preconceptions. It's important that the criminal justice system be viewed as fair and that crime and punishment is done the way it should be."

The Center for Court Innovation will help support the work of the Lippman Commission by providing research and strategic advice.  Here is my quote from the City Council press release:
“New York City has made real progress in recent days toward reducing the use of jail and bolstering the legitimacy of the justice system. The Commission created by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by Jonathan Lippman has the potential to take this work to the next level, advancing a new vision of justice that emphasizes community-based alternatives to incarceration and treating individual defendants and victims with dignity and respect. The results achieved by projects like the Red Hook Community Justice Center suggest that this approach can help reduce crime and improve public trust in justice. At the Center for Court Innovation, we applaud the Speaker's leadership and look forward to supporting the efforts of the Commission in any way we can.”
Will this Commission lead to fundamental change of the justice system in New York City?  To be honest, the obstacles will be enormous -- political, financial, logistical, etc.  But it is worth pausing at least for today to appreciate that one of the most powerful elected officials in the City has put her weight behind reducing incarceration and advancing community justice.  No small thing.  

Some press coverage: