Saturday, May 16, 2015

601 Tully

I made a quick trip to Syracuse earlier this week for the opening of the Near Westside Peacemaking Project.

Building on the model of a similar program that we created in Red Hook, Brooklyn a couple of years ago, the Near Westside project seeks to resolve conflicts by adapting a Native American tradition to local problems.  Local volunteers are trained to serve as "peacemakers" by Native American practitioners.  The basic idea is to take a restorative justice approach to conflict, bringing together affected parties for multiple conversations that will hopefully yield a consensus about how to address the problem and move forward.  Peacemaking is a particularly good fit for messy problems involving multiple participants who must continue to interact on an ongoing basis.

Our hope is that the peacemaking project, which will handle referrals from the justice system, schools and neighborhood groups, will play a role in the continued revitalization of the Near Westside neighborhood, which has struggled with crime and poverty for many years.  The project is located in the heart of the community at 601 Tully Street, at an intersection that also features a school, a park and a church.

The peacemaking project has already successfully resolved one complicated dispute involving local school children and their families.  Another three conflicts are in the process of being addressed.  Also encouraging is the amount of good will the program has engendered in the community.  Dozens of local residents came out to celebrate the launch of the program, including many of the volunteer peacemakers.  Also on hand were the chief of police and representatives from the local housing authority, district attorney's office, and parole department.  It was a visible reminder of one of my favorite qualities of the Center for Court Innovation: when we are at our best, we are capable of serving as an interstitial link between government and the communities that government needs to do a better job of serving.

Speaking of links, it has been awhile since I unburdened myself of my opinions on a range of cultural topics.  Here are some quick takes:

The Engineer's Lament -- I think this is the best piece that Malcolm Gladwell has written for The New Yorker in some time.  I particularly liked his emphasis on the role our professional training plays in explaining our perspectives of the world.  (My lack of graduate education has certainly helped shape how I think.)

Montage of Heck -- While I didn't love HBO's overstuffed Kurt Cobain documentary, it did encourage me to play my Nirvana CDs for the first time in awhile.  I think I may be coming to the conclusion that Kurt Cobain was overrated but Nirvana was underrated, if that makes any sense.

The Memory Chalet -- I was initially tipped off to Nirvana in the early '90s by my friend John, whose tastes don't always overlap with mine, but whose recommendations I always take seriously.  As it happens, I am currently reading a book that John gave me: The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt.  The book collects some of the final writings by historian Tony Judt, who remained a productive writer till the end of his life despite contracting Lou Gehrig's disease.  It is the first book I've read by Judt, who I now add to the long list of authors who I wish I could write as well as.

Bill Simmons/ESPN Kerfuffle -- I'm a big believer in the importance of building small pleasures into one's daily routine.  The end of the Colbert Report was a big loss for me on this front -- I found the show's absurd humor helped sustain me.  This week has brought more bad news with the abrupt departure of Bill Simmons from Grantland and ESPN.  Simmons' columns and podcasts were something I looked forward to on a weekly basis.  If it is true, as rumored, that his departure was driven by ESPN's concerns about his criticisms of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, it is yet another reason for me to loathe the league.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I'm Still Free"

Another day, another great Center for Court Innovation event, this time in upper Manhattan as the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest cohort of graduates from its reentry court. More than 41 parolees were honored for having completed the nine month program.

I'm afraid I have written about these events on quite a few occasions so I apologize for the repetition, but this evening was another inspiring affair.  As always, I was struck by the mutual respect, gratitude and warmth between the graduates and their parole officers -- pretty much the opposite of what many people might expect the relationship between parolee and parole officer to look like.

The graduates were asked to say a few words as they accepted their certificates.  Part of the joy of these graduations is to see how each parolee reacts to this assignment.  Some are reticent.  Some make jokes.  Some speak directly to their fellow parolees.  Some speak to the rest of the audience.  And some are natural speechmakers who light up in front of the microphone.

Despite the diverse personalities of the individual parolees, their remarks tend to cluster around a few key themes -- their lives before prison, the challenges of reentry, the impact of the reentry court.  Here are a few sample quotations I jotted down from various speakers:

"I came home with nothing"

"I thought the world was against me."

"When I came here I was broken down.  I didn't want this program."

"I've been bumped and bruised."

"I've come a long ways.  I was in prison for 22 years.  The first week I came to the program I had a job...I still have a job."

"I want to thank my parole officer for treating me like a regular human being."

"Without my parole officers, I would have gone back."

"Thanks for not giving up on me."

"I'm still free."

Changing the DNA of the Courts

Earlier this week, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Bronx Community Solutions with a lunchtime event for about 200 people.  The featured speakers included Bronx District Attorney Rob Johnson (pictured), New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and New York City Council member Vanessa Gibson.

One of the things that any non-profit has to worry about is relevance.  This is particularly true of organizations that have experienced success in the past.  So I come to anniversary events with some trepidation.  In general, I don't think it is healthy for organizations to celebrate the past at the expense of current work or future plans.

But the Bronx Community Solutions event didn't trip this wire, at least for me.  I think the reason for this is that the problems that Bronx Community Solutions was created to address -- the over-reliance on incarceration as a response to minor offending and the disconnect between the justice system and local neighborhoods -- are more urgent and more relevant now than ever before.

All of the speakers highlighted that Bronx Community Solutions has succeeded in reducing the use of incarceration in the Bronx -- the number of misdemeanants going to Rikers Island has gone down by more than 40 percent since the project opened.  (This is something I wrote about a few months back for Talk Poverty.) Indeed, Chief Judge Lippman pointed to Bronx Community Solutions as a core component of a larger, systemic investment in alternatives to incarceration.  "We have come to understand that jail is a tool, not the tool...Step by step, we are changing the DNA of the courts," said Lippman.

As encouraging as Lippman's words were, the highlight of the event was undoubtedly the remarks by Ramon Semorile, a Bronx Community Solutions staffer who talked about the challenges he faced returning to the community after prison and the role that Bronx Community Solutions had played in helping him move forward in a positive direction.

We still have a long ways to go before we can say that we have a justice system that is fair, effective, and humane. But events like the one in the Bronx give me hope that change is possible -- for individuals, for communities, and for government systems.

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.