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.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Snapshots of Brownsville


I take an enormous amount of pride in the Center for Court Innovation's reputation as a serious  research organization.  Under the leadership of our research director, Michael Rempel, our research department has grown steadily in size and stature, conducting dozens of studies of national and international import.  We also ask our research team to look at our own operating programs to figure out whether we are actually achieving the kind of results that we intend.

As important as I think it is to use data to examine the impact of our work, numbers inevitably fail to communicate much of what we do.  Take the Brownsville Community Justice Center, for example.

We are running a variety of different initiatives in Brownsville, all designed to reduce local crime, improve public trust in justice, and provide meaningful opportunities for young people to avoid criminal involvement.   This includes a campaign to combat violence in the neighborhood, a youth court that trains local teens to handle cases involving their peers, and a variety of efforts to transform the physical environment in Brownsville.

Even as I type this (partial) list of our activities, I know that I am failing to capture the feeling and texture of the work in Brownsville.  In the face of significant challenges, our team is helping to transform the lives of hundreds of people each year.  Everyone who I have ever sent out to Brownsville to see the work in action has come back a believer.

But it is hard to get people out to Brownsville.  So we have tried to tell the Brownsville story through podcasts, including this one with Loretta Lynch.  We have tried to tell the Brownsville story through a wonderful blog that is well worth following.  We  also have an Instagram account for Brownsville: @the_brownsville_justice_center.

Our latest effort is an investment in photography and design.  Spurred in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, we have created a beautiful poster (see photo above) that features portraits of a number of local residents and participants in our programs.  I can't wait for the final product to come back from the printers.

While we still have a lot of work to do to spread the word about the Brownsville Community Justice Center, the New York Times has gotten the message, running this piece earlier this week and this editorial endorsing the idea of a community court for the neighborhood.



Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Delayed Gratification


Last week, my beloved Arsenal football team won the FA Cup with a resounding 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.  The raw joy in the faces of the Arsenal supporters at the game reflected something more than the usual happiness at a favorable sporting outcome.  Part of this is contextual: despite being one of the most prominent clubs in the world, up until last year, Arsenal had somehow managed to go nearly a decade without winning a trophy of any significance.  The long wait clearly made the triumph just a little bit sweeter.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of patience of late.  I am currently working on a number of long-gestating projects, some of which are making steady progress and some of which seem to be going backwards.  Learning to delay gratification has been an important part of the maturing process for me as a professional.  When I first started working at the Center for Court Innovation, the longest I could imagine a project taking to get off the ground was about a year.  One of the most valuable of the many contributions that my old boss John Feinblatt made to my life was talking me down from the (metaphorical) ledge when I wanted to pull the plug on the planning of the Red Hook Community Justice Center back in the mid-1990s when we couldn't seem to attract any money or political attention to the project.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that John not only had faith in the merits of the project, but an appreciation that sometimes good things come to those who wait.  That certainly was the case in Red Hook, which thanks to a crucial push from both the New York City Mayor's Office and the New York State Court System, finally opened its doors for business in 2000.  In fact, we will be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Justice Center later this year with a cocktail party at the Brooklyn Museum.  (See here for more information and to order tickets.)

One of the current projects that we are working on with a significant lead time is a new risk-need screening instrument for criminal courts.  With support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we are working to pilot the tool in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  The basic idea is to help judges, attorneys, and others make more informed decisions about the use of alternatives to detention and incarceration in high-volume criminal justice settings.  Our assessment instrument gives decision makers information about the risk levels of defendants -- how likely they are to re-offend.   It also provides information about the kinds of needs that individual defendants bring with them to the justice system -- addiction, housing problems, joblessness, etc.  Our hope in developing the tool is that justice agencies will use this information to both protect public safety and to increase the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration.

We did a presentation on the risk-need instrument the week before last to a small group of influential criminal justice players here in New York City.  At the meeting, researcher Sarah Picard-Fritsche took me by surprise when she said that she has been working on the project for four years.  It is no doubt a sign of my advancing years that four years no longer seems like such a very long time -- particularly since we are still probably a year away from the project bearing fruit.

For a little more detail on what we are up to with the criminal court assessment tool, check out this New Thinking podcast with Sarah Picard-Fritsche.


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.