Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Answer Is Love

Earlier this week, there was a shooting down the street from our headquarters on 8th Avenue.  The details are murky, but press reports suggest that the incident, which left one dead and two injured, was drug-related and that everyone involved had a history of addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system.

I have been thinking about this shooting a lot – and not just because I walk past the site of the violence every morning on my way to work.  

A few days ago, I took a couple of foundation executives to tour the Midtown Community Court.  It was a great visit, highlighted by a conversation with a client in Midtown’s fatherhood program who had originally come to the Court as a defendant.  In the course of detailing his efforts to achieve sobriety, Daniel said that if it wasn’t for the Midtown Community Court, he would be dead.

At the risk of appearing insensitive, I usually dismiss this kind of language.  It is not uncommon for clients to make over-the-top rhetorical gestures.  But this time, it stopped me cold.  It may have been because of the earnest way the line was delivered.  Or maybe it was Daniel’s facial scarring, which spoke of a life lived on the edge.

In any case, it was a powerful reminder of the importance of the work that is being done on the ground every day by our case managers, outreach workers, violence interrupters, social workers and youth workers in places like Red Hook, Brownsville, Harlem, Crown Heights, Newark, and the South Bronx.  They are literally in the business of saving lives.

How do they do it?  According to Daniel, the client at Midtown, the answer is love.  He talked about his relationship with his case manager, and the care she had shown him, even when he relapsed or failed to show up for court appearances. 

Daniel also talked about the importance of small gestures.  In his case, the purchase of a meal at McDonalds when he was at a low moment was a sign of the program’s love and respect – a love and respect that he has attempted to reciprocate by meeting his obligations to the court.  The drug treatment and the job training and the judicial monitoring were important to Daniel, but they might have gone for nought if they were not accompanied by the feeling that his case manager truly cared for him.

Daniel’s story isn’t over yet, of course.  Staying clean will be a lifetime struggle.  And he still needs to find long-term employment.  But Daniel has reconnected with his daughter and is attempting to be a good father. 

As depressing at it is to contemplate the life trajectories of the men involved in the Midtown shooting earlier this week, Daniel’s example gives me hope that – with the right combination of programming and accountability and, yes, love -- these trajectories can be altered.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Celebrating Red Hook

This past Monday, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Red Hook Community Justice Center with a benefit at the Brooklyn Museum.  More than 200 people showed up to see us honor New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Cravath Swaine & Moore partner Stuart Gold, and former client Pauline Nevins.  Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson gave a particularly good speech, highlighting Red Hook's importance as an international model of fairness and making a strong case for a community justice center in Brownsville.  (For a full report on the event, click here.)

As much as I enjoyed the various speakers, my favorite part of the evening was seeing so many friends and former colleagues come out to support the Center.  The party had a little bit of a reunion vibe.  Given this, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite photos, courtesy of our ace photographer, Gene Sorkin.

This is a shot of me with Ife Charles (who works on gun violence prevention programs at the Center for Court Innovation) and Errol Louis of NY1 who served as the MC for the event.

Here is Red Hook's presiding judge, Alex Calabrese, with Pauline Nevins.

Toni Bullock-Stallings recently retired after serving as chief clerk in Red Hook for many years, but she came back to celebrate with us.  That's her on the right.  On the left is Sabrina Carter, a Red Hook resident who first entered our orbit when she served as a member of the Red Hook youth court.  She is now the coordinator of youth programs at the Justice Center.

City council member Rory Lancman (on the left) has been a vocal advocate of justice reform in New York City.  We have been talking with him about studying the feasibility of a community justice center in Queens.  On the right is Wally Bazemore, a community activist from Red Hook.  I met Wally back in the bad old days when Red Hook was overrun by drugs.  He was involved in a group called the Mad Dads of Red Hook.  He has been an important supporter of the Justice Center, including volunteering for Red Hook's peacemaking program.

Pauline Nevins was the evening's final speaker.  She talked movingly about her struggle with addiction and the role that the Justice Center (and Judge Calabrese in particular) has played in helping her get her life back on track. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Not Just Another Docket Number

The past twelve months or so have been a time of great ferment here at the Center for Court Innovation.  We have launched a number of significant new programs, including Poverty Justice Solutions.  Alongside the MacArthur Foundation and an array of other partners, we have embarked on a national effort to reduce the use of local jail.  And we have made an institutional commitment to help promote bail reform in New York.

One of the most exciting new developments at the Center is actually one of the simplest (at least conceptually).  The Center got its start creating alternatives to incarceration at the sentencing phase of the criminal justice process.  We worked with justice agencies to create meaningful alternatives so that judges wouldn't have to default to jail or prison as a response to misdemeanor crime or addicted offenders or mentally-ill felons.

In recent months, we have attempted to bring similar kinds of programming (community restitution projects, links to social services) to key junctures earlier in the criminal justice process.  One particular area of emphasis is pre-court diversion.  Our goal here is to provide legally-proportionate responses to minor offending so that teens can avoid formal case processing and all of the attendant collateral consequences that go along with it (including the potential to receive a criminal record).

With the help of the New York Police Department and the District Attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we have launched an initiative known as Project Reset.  With initial pilots in Brownsville and Harlem, Project Reset provides 16- and 17-year-olds who have been apprehended for offenses like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession with a path out of the justice system.  If they successfully complete a short, two-session intervention, participants never have to go to court.  As a result, they walk away with no criminal record -- and no chance of landing in jail.

Project Reset is still in its infancy, but we have already seen enough to suggest that it is worth looking to expand the program beyond its pilot sites.

One of the crucial building blocks for Project Reset has been the youth courts that we operate in Harlem and Brownsville. These projects are training local teens to offer a restorative response to low-level offenses committed by their peers.  Fusion TV  recently documented the experience of Faith, a Brownsville teenager who went through the youth court.  There was much to like about the piece, but my favorite line was when Faith said: "It feels good that I got a second chance and to have actually learned from it."  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Expressing With My Full Capabilities

I spent the Labor Day holiday immersed in hip-hop and history, going to see Hamilton on Broadway and Straight Outta Compton at the cineplex.

In many ways, the most remarkable thing about these two cultural products is the simple fact that they exist.  It is fair to say that neither a hip-hop musical nor a feature-length bio-pic about a rap group that recorded only a single good album would have been conceivable when I was first introduced to hip hop at a basketball camp in Washington DC back in the summer of 1984.

I had heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash some time earlier.  As good as that song was (and is), I dismissed it as a one-off, a gimmick.  Then, on the bus ride to camp one day, I heard "It's Like That" by Run-DMC.  It was, as Large Professor would say, "rebel music," and as such, it resonated with my teenage anti-authority impulses.

With the benefit of hindsight, the 1980s was not the best of times to be a teenager -- AIDS, crack cocaine, an explosion of gun violence, disinvestment in cities, etc.  But I will always be grateful that I got to experience the "golden age of hip-hip" as it unfolded.  It seemed like every month, a different artist was releasing ground-breaking work -- the Jungle Brothers, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and many others.

I have written a fair amount about my love of hip-hop.  I don't want to over-sell it, but there is no doubt that hip-hop has had an influence on my professional life.  Thanks to hip-hop (and an unsolicited editorial I wrote about Eazy-E), I got a chance to freelance at the Providence Journal in my early 20s.  And while there is no obvious connection between hip-hop and the Center for Court Innovation, I like to think that I bring some of the creativity, humor, and DIY spirit of the music to my daily work.

These qualities are manifest in abundance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which really is as good as everyone says it is.  In an odd way, I found the musical about our founding fathers closer in spirit to what drew me to hip-hop than the film about N.W.A.  The Straight Outta Compton movie makes a half-hearted effort to claim that N.W.A were "journalists" reporting on the reality of life on the streets of Los Angeles.  For a time, it was possible to listen to Public Enemy and imagine that you were tuned into "CNN for black people," as Chuck D famously said.  But not N.W.A.  Once you got past a handful of powerful anti-police songs, N.W.A. spent most of their time engaging in macho posturing and adolescent sex fantasies.  And that comes across in the film, which, like the music it depicts, often feels cynical and mercenary.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fighting Poverty, Closing the Justice Gap

Tonight marked the official launch of Poverty Justice Solutions, our new initiative that seeks to achieve multiple goals simultaneously: preventing eviction (and the resulting economic hardship), improving access to justice in New York City Housing Court, strengthening local legal service providers, and encouraging an ethic of service among law school a few others that I'm probably forgetting.

The project is the product of a partnership between the Center for Court Innovation, New York State Court System, Robin Hood Foundation, New York City Human Resources Administration, Mayer Brown LLP, and numerous legal service providers.  Twenty newly-minted attorneys will receive a two-year fellowship to represent indigent clients in Housing Court.  (Many are graduates of the pro bono scholars program initiated by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.)  Along the way, we will provide them with special educational opportunities above and beyond the training they receive from their host organizations.  Our hope is that this group will develop not just into first-rate attorneys, but the next generation of leaders who will advance the field of civil justice.

In his remarks at tonight's gathering, Judge Lippman placed Poverty Justice Solutions in the context of the battle to close the "justice gap" -- the staggering numbers of poor New Yorkers who must go to court to address fundamental issues related to their housing, or their families, or their jobs, without the benefit of legal representation.  Twenty new lawyers won't fix this problem by themselves, of course, but we hope that when combined with increased funding for legal services from the city and the state and other innovative programs like the Immigrant Justice Corps, we can make a significant dent.

Here's a link to a piece in the New York Law Journal about Poverty Justice Solutions.

Friday, August 7, 2015

In Praise of My Father-In-Law

I write in praise of Jim Vellenga, my father-in-law.

I entered into a long-term relationship with Jim more than two decades ago when I decided to marry his daughter.

As far as I know, there is no real guide to forging a good relationship with your father-in-law. Despite the presence of the word “father,” your relationship with the man who raised you isn’t really analogous. The dynamic with a father-in-law is simpler and less fraught – there is no need to distinguish yourself from your father-in-law.  Nor do you feel implicated, at least not directly, by the behavior of your father-in-law.

Nonetheless, it can still be a tricky relationship to navigate.  As I started to get to know Jim, I thought a lot about my relationships with other male authority figures – coaches, teachers, bosses.  I began to sketch what I thought were the essential ingredients of a good father-in-law.  I came up with three:

1. Acceptance – First and foremost, it is important to be welcomed into the family with enthusiasm.
2. Difference – I was looking for a different perspective from my family of origin...but not too different. That is, I was hoping my father-in-law would broaden my thinking about the world but that his underlying values would be compatible with those of my parents.
3. Reliability – Finally, I wanted a reliable narrator, someone who could be trusted to look after my children, to offer meaningful advice, and to step up in times of crisis.

From day one, Jim has exceeded my fondest hopes in all of these areas and more besides.

What, you may be asking, are the essential elements of being a good son-in-law?  What was Jim looking for from me?  I have given less thought to this question.  Perhaps this is because I know the answer might not be flattering.

Jim has a natural head for numbers and business.  I avoid math wherever possible and have spent my entire professional life in the non-profit sector.  Brought up in South Dakota, Jim is an outdoorsman who loves to hunt and hike.  I am a city boy who refused to participate in target practice at summer camp because I didn’t want to touch a rifle.  Trained as an engineer, Jim can fix anything.  I only have one move when something breaks in my house – to pay someone to repair it for me.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Suffice to say that if Jim chose to look at me through a critical lens, he could find no shortage of faults.  But instead of judging me with a critical eye, Jim has always embraced me with a warm, open heart.  And for that, I will always be grateful.  I can’t imagine a better father-in-law.

I write all of this now because Jim has fallen ill and, despite my fervent wishes to the contrary, there is very little I can do to help him.  So I write this just to express my love and regard.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Design Like You Give A Damn

"Design Like You Give A Damn" is the name of a book that came out a few years ago that featured, among other innovative public projects, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  "Design Like You Give A Damn" would also have been a good title for the conversation I participated in earlier today with a group of architects interested in rethinking how the justice system approaches design.

The participants in the meeting were full of good ideas about how to improve jails, courthouses, probation offices and other criminal justice settings. The group seemed to agree that before you can have good design, you have to have good clients (i.e. government agencies who are interested in more than simply replicating yesterday's facilities with better systems) and good process (to arrive at a shared programmatic vision to guide design).

Everyone in the room also seemed to agree that "environment cues behavior" as one architect put it. The implications of this for the criminal justice system are to create spaces that encourage (voluntary) law-abiding behavior and nudge participants (be they inmates, arrestees, victims, etc) toward participation in positive activities.

While the architects didn't use the language of procedural justice, they essentially were encouraging criminal justice agencies to create facilities that communicate respect to users not just through program but through design and signage as well.  This idea has animated all of the design projects that we have engaged in at the Center for Court Innovation.

As it happens, I talked a little bit about the intersection of design and procedural justice at the National Network for Safe Communities conference a few weeks ago -- see video link below around the 16 minute mark.

For anyone interested in more detail about how we have tried to approach these topics -- typically with a major assist from the architect Alta Indelman -- check out this breakdown of the Red Hook Community Justice Center that was published by the Rudy Bruner Foundation

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Revolutionary Idea

She works in a building called "the green monster."   She's been called "a warrior of procedural justice." Now I think you just have to call her a star.

It has been a big couple of weeks for Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  A couple of weeks ago, she was profiled in a great long read in the Guardian under the headline: "The simple idea that could transform US criminal justice."  And this morning she appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC talking about how she has implemented procedural justice in Newark's Municipal Court.

In just a few minutes on screen, Judge Pratt explains how to treat even difficult defendants with dignity and respect.  She also talks about how she has used essay assignments to help defendants accept accountability for their behavior and think outside of the four corners of their block.

This is must-see TV for criminal justice reformers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Love of Humanity

This week we said a reluctant farewell to Lucille Jackson, the project director of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, who is retiring after more than a decade of service.  Building on a foundation put in place by Carol Fisler, the project's lead planner and initial director, Lucille has helped the Brooklyn Mental Health Court achieve some remarkable results, including reducing re-offending by mentally-ill felony defendants.  (This recent article by Carol in the Judges Journal is worth a read for anyone who is interested in the latest research about the mental health court model.)

The Brooklyn Mental Health Court's impact on clients would not be possible without the active involvement of numerous people and agencies.  Lucille's farewell breakfast offered visible evidence of the collaborative spirit that she has been able to create and sustain within Kings County Supreme Court. Social workers, court officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others talked about Lucille's capacity for hard work, her ability to adapt to difficult situations, and her willingness to mentor staff.

Perhaps most powerfully, Lucille was toasted by the presiding judge of the Mental Health Court, Matthew D'Emic.  (Judge D'Emic is being honored this summer by the American Bar Association at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.)  Judge D'Emic spoke eloquently about Lucille being motivated by a profound "love of humanity."

I think Judge D'Emic got it spot on.  Lucille is someone with a seemingly bottomless well of empathy, an empathy that she displays not just in her dealings with clients but with her colleagues and her partners.  She has made a significant contribution to our organization, to the criminal justice system, and to the borough of Brooklyn.  We will miss her.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"This Is Not Okay"

I'm spending today and tomorrow at the National Network for Safe Communities conference at John Jay College.  For those who don't know the National Network, they are the organization that is seeking to reduce crime and repair public trust in justice through a series of related interventions (e.g. the drug market intervention and the group violence intervention) that bring law enforcement and community voices together to combat violence.

I'm not a formal member of the Network, but I consider myself a bit of a fellow traveler.  Certainly, the Center for Court Innovation shares the broad goals of the Network to reduce the use of incarceration and repair the damaged relationship between the justice system and communities, particularly communities of color. (And, it should be noted, we have helped to convene call-in meetings in Brownsville that are an adaptation of the group violence intervention.)

I wish that everyone who is worried about the current state of criminal justice in this country could have been at this morning's session at the conference.  They would have seen dozens of police chiefs, prosecutors, community leaders and academics grappling earnestly with both the history of our country (particularly the legacy of racism) and the need for immediate and urgent action in crime-plagued communities. A few highlights from some of the featured speakers:

Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College, said that "the heavy footprint of mass incarceration...casts a shadow over our democracy."

Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, said that faith in justice has been fractured in many places but "nowhere is fractured faith beyond repair."  She went on to assert that "fairness and effectiveness in enforcement of the law are not mutually exclusive."

David Kennedy, the director of the National Network, made the case that there are too many communities in the U.S. with unconscionably high rates of violence, incarceration, and distrust of law enforcement.  "This is not okay," Kennedy asserted, underlining the moral imperative for change.  He went on to say that "small steps can make a huge difference" when it comes to addressing these issues.

William Bratton, the police commissioner here in New York, called the current moment, "the most serious crisis" he has seen in his career in law enforcement.  According to Bratton, "public safety without public approval isn't public safety."  He stated that there are alternatives to enforcement that can change the behavior of offenders and would-be offenders.  Among other examples, he highlighted Project Reset, the initiative that we are helping the NYPD (and local prosecutors) pilot in Brownsville and Harlem as a way of diverting 16 and 17 year olds who have committed minor offenses from formal court processing.