Sunday, May 21, 2017

Locking Up Our Own

I read James Forman Jr.'s new book, Locking Up Our Own, quickly.  It is the kind of book that I like.  Indeed, it is the kind of book that I have tried on several occasions to write.

Locking Up Our Own is mercifully short -- less than 250 pages.  No padding here.  It is well-written.  The authorial voice is modest and unassuming.  Despite the urgency of Forman's message, which is essentially to make the case for a more humane approach to criminal justice policy, his tone is even-handed.  It never feels like he is over-egging the batter.  Despite this, I read the last dozen or so pages with tears in my eyes, moved by the story of Forman's attempt to help one of his clients when he served as a public defender.

While he brings to life a handful of interesting cases from his practice, Forman's primary purpose is to tell the story of the last 40 years of criminal justice history in the United States.  He rigorously -- and, in my opinion, correctly -- focuses on local politics and policymaking.  Forman uses Washington, D.C. as the launching pad for his narrative.  D.C. is my hometown and I can attest that Forman captures the mood and dynamics of the city well.

In particular, Forman nails the impact of the crack epidemic, both on the streets and in the corridors of power, in the 1980s and 1990s.  Washington was a violent city in those years and, as Forman documents, the calls for more law enforcement and tougher penalties came from almost all quarters -- including the black community.

Forman treats the central players in this history with nuance and understanding.  As he details, their actions directly contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States.  But Forman gives them their due.  He acknowledges that they were responding to an unprecedented calamity -- the public safety crisis in D.C. was real and demanded immediate action.

Forman doesn't offer up pantomime villains or grand unifying theories.  In the end, he concludes that mass incarceration is "the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors.  If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way."  That sounds right to me.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Inside/Outside Strategy

Philanthropy New York hosted a briefing on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (aka the Lippman Commission) earlier today.  It was a fascinating event.  I have been spending a fair amount of my time on this issue of late.  Even so, I felt like I learned things from the session, which featured former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Glenn Martin of #CloseRikers, Ken Zimmerman of Open Society Foundations, Sarah Williams of Propel Capital, and Justin Lapatine of Global Strategy Group.

Ken Zimmerman made a persuasive argument (to me at least) that even funders without a declared interest in criminal justice should care about the topic.  He said that every social policy issue (poverty, immigration, housing, education, etc.) inevitably involves people who are engaged in the criminal justice system.

Sarah Williams made the case that to achieve significant cultural change, you need both an inside and an outside strategy.  Judge Lippman and Glenn Martin embodied the two sides of this coin.  Martin talked about the various techniques that #CloseRikers has employed to raise public and political consciousness about the idea of closing Rikers Island.  And Judge Lippman talked about how he marshaled various institutional players (including the Center for Court Innovation) to support the work of the Commission.

Speaking of Rikers, I wanted to share a few links:

An Urgent Checklist for Closing Rikers -- Daily News op-ed.

Goodbye Rikers -- Off Kilter podcast

Radicalized on Rikers -- Slant podcast from City & State

The End of Rikers? -- New Thinking podcast featuring Courtney Bryan

As even the most optimistic advocates will admit, there is still a lot of work to be done to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality.  Certainly the Philanthropy New York session highlighted that there is a need for deeper, long-term investments on a number of fronts -- advocacy, direct service, research, and others. But I left feeling encouraged that there is an interest in criminal justice among the foundation community that simply didn't exist when I started working in this field twenty plus years ago.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Sensible Plan

For the past year, I have had two principal jobs – running the Center for Court Innovation and helping to coordinate the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.  A few days ago, the second job came to a happy conclusion with the release of the Commission’s final report. 

The report is more than one hundred pages long, but I can summarize the principal conclusion: the jail complex on Rikers Island must be closed. 

In truth, the Commission is not the first organization to make this case.  Indeed, Glenn Martin, gabriel sayegh and the #CLOSERikers campaign have been making this argument for some time.  What made the Independent Commission unique is that it set out to demonstrate how this goal might be accomplished.  The resulting blueprint details how the jail population in New York City might be reduced to roughly 5,000 people through improved diversion, pretrial justice, case processing, and sentencing. 

It is going to take some time for policymakers to digest the Commission’s report and weigh all of the recommendations.  The good news is that they will be doing so in the context of Mayor de Blasio’s historic decision to endorse the goal of closing Rikers Island.  In making this announcement, the Mayor underlined the difficulty of the task ahead.  I don’t think anyone who has studied Rikers would disagree. We have miles (and years) to go.  But at least we are on the path.  And that is worth celebrating.

I said before that the thing that made the Commission unique was its mission to come up with what the New York Times called “a specific, sensible, defensible plan.”  But there were a few other things that made the Commission unique. 

First was its leadership.  The Commission was fortunate to have former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as its chair.  Judge Lippman’s work ethic, strategic wisdom, and good humor kept the group constantly moving forward.  New York City is lucky indeed that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito selected Judge Lippman for this assignment.

Second, the Commission brought 27 leaders from a variety of fields to the table.  They included people with experience in law enforcement and people with experience behind bars…business leaders and community activists…defense attorneys and prosecutors…you name it.  Remarkably, everyone was willing to put their egos aside, roll up their sleeves, and devote hundreds of hours to the challenge of Rikers Island. 

Third, the Commission relied on the expertise of several private and non-profit partners.  In addition to the Center for Court Innovation, these included CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, Latham & Watkins LLP, Vera Institute of Justice, Forest City Ratner, HR&A Advisors, and Global Strategy Group.  I know for a fact that all of these groups devoted considerable pro bono time to staffing the Commission.  

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that dozens of people at the Center for Court Innovation contributed their time and ideas to this project – analyzing data, suggesting language, brainstorming solutions to obstacles along the way, etc.  There are too many to name them all, but I have to cite three: Nora McDonnell, Mike Rempel, and Courtney Bryan.  Nora served as our organizational backbone.  Mike was the man with the vision and the command of the data and the seemingly endless capacity for hard work. 

And Courtney…well, Courtney was everything.  She was, like Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink.  Many, many people deserve credit for the Lippman Commission – it was a complicated undertaking that required the active collaboration of literally dozens of people (and no small dose of good luck). But I can tell you without fear of contradiction that Courtney Bryan was absolutely essential.  A unanimous, “thoroughly researched and compelling presented” report simply doesn’t get done without her smarts, her hustle, and her charm.  Period.

Apologies for the long, congratulatory message, but certain things must be said.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Trial & Error in China

As anyone who has spent time with me can no doubt attest, I have been the beneficiary of a lot of good luck in my professional life.  Many of the good things that have happened to me have been the product of being in the right place at the right time as opposed to careful, deliberate planning toward a pre-determined goal.

The latest example of this is the release of a Chinese edition of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning Failure by Peking University Press.

A couple of years ago, He Ting, a Chinese scholar, approached me to ask whether I was willing to let him translate the book.  He did almost all of the work.  My role was to serve as a go-between with the publisher to help secure the rights.  I also contributed a short new afterword.

The book was released a few weeks ago.  My copies arrived in the mail earlier this week.  It is a beautiful edition -- kudos to He Ting and the folks at Peking University Press.  Alas, I lack the language skills to be able to read the brook  But for fun I did go to Google to translate some of the reviews from Amazon.  Here is a small sample:

"Author writing humorous, so that this book has a strong readability and popularity."

"Through the US criminal justice reform, we can find a lot of inspiration, some things can not just rely on our simple judgments to get the results."

"Content is easy to understand, to practical cases to promote academic thinking, by the influence of the story of the vivid description of the can be described as the music in the music."

"American legal system has been for other countries to refer to and study, the United States of justice came today, the original has also experienced such a twists and turns."

Rowman & Littlefield came out with a revised English language version of Trial & Error last year, with a brand new introduction from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. and a new postscript from both Aubrey Fox and me.  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Aubrey Fox

Today brings news that the Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) has selected Aubrey Fox to be their new executive director.  CJA has a long, rich tradition of reducing the unnecessary use of pretrial detention in New York City. I have written in the past about the special debt that I feel to the agency so I won't rehash that here. What I'm not sure I've written about before is the debt that I feel to Aubrey.

Aubrey worked at the Center for Court Innovation for many years and in many capacities.  Among other things, he helped to plan and launch Bronx Community Solutions and the Centre for Justice Innovation, our UK-based sister agency. As with all of the best people that I have worked with over the years, it is difficult to distill Aubrey's impact down to items on a resume.  In particular, his intellectual curiosity, his sense of adventure, and his capacity for mirth had a big influence on the trajectory of the Center. Certainly they had a big influence on me.

I can't count the number of essays, op-eds, grant proposals, reports and other written products that I have co-authored with Aubrey.  This includes working together on Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure, a book about how difficult it is to make change happen in the real world.  Collaboration can be hard work -- it is not easy to produce joint written product.  But working with Aubrey was a day at the beach -- he always brought humor and insight and flexibility and compassion.

I have no doubt that he will bring these same qualities to leading CJA.  I wish him nothing but success.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Aiming for Improvement

I spent the end of 2016 catching up on my reading.  Among other things, I was able to finish Dale Russakoff's The Prize, which I recommend highly.  It is essentially a more thoroughly-reported, education-focused version of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform.  Russakoff tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to reform Newark schools.  Despite the money (which was matched by other philanthropists) and the spirited advocacy of Governor Christie and Mayor Cory Booker, the effort ended up being a slow-motion train wreck.  

Much of what is described in The Prize is unique to Newark.   But there are also lots of lessons that are applicable to other settings.  The mistakes made in Newark include a failure to engage meaningfully with local communities, a focus on publicity at the expense of implementation, and a propensity to overstate results.  The Prize is essentially an endorsement of working behind the scenes, engaging in rigorous research, having humility, listening to people on the ground, and celebrating incremental progress -- in other words, the Center for Court Innovation's approach to reform. 

The Prize isn't an uplifting book by any means, but it provided me with a measure of inspiration as we head into the new year.  I have no doubt that 2017 will bring many challenges.  But I also have enormous confidence in the Center for Court Innovation's model -- and the quality of the people I work alongside.  

We are currently putting the finishing touches on our most successful year-end individual fundraising appeal ever.  In one of the appeals that we sent to potential donors, I quoted a recent article from The New Yorker by Akash Kapur that struck a chord with me.  He writes,

"What if the real way forward weren't a great leap but grinding, tedious, unglamorously incremental change -- what George Eliot called 'meliorism'? ...Aiming not at perfection but at improvement, accepting the vagaries of human nature as a premise that policy must accommodate, rather than wish away, meliorism forces a longer, more calibrated approach.  It is not a path for the impatient, but it has the verdict of history on its side." 

The kind of work the Center for Court Innovation does -- strengthening the fabric of neighborhoods, changing the behavior of justice agencies, investing in the futures of young people, etc -- doesn't lend itself to quick fixes or easy solutions.  But that's why we designed the Center for Court Innovation to be an ongoing engine for change that is not tied to any particular administration or piece of legislation or single issue.  

Reform within any public bureaucracy is difficult.  It is doubly so within the American criminal justice system, which is comprised of multiple agencies in multiple places, each with its own unique mission and culture.  As the old cliche goes, criminal justice reform is a marathon not a sprint.  And the Center for Court Innovation is built for a long race.  

Friday, December 2, 2016


The rapper Nas has helped to create an (intentionally) ugly sweater for the holiday season through HSTRY clothing.  A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Center for Court Innovation.  This is a rare coming together of my personal and professional passions.  I was fortunate to see Nas open for Gangstarr in 1994 in Providence, Rhode Island; Illmatic remains one of my all-time favorite hip-hop albums.   It was clear back then that Nas was a unique talent.  I'm not sure why he has chosen the Center for this honor, but I'm grateful.

Speaking of talent, I get an enormous kick out of seeing Center for Court Innovation alums go off to do amazing things in the world.  Today I had a chance to catch up with one such alum: Marlon Peterson.  Among other things, Marlon is promoting the idea of establishing gun-free zones, where both police and and local residents agree to disarm. 

Keeping on the talent theme, earlier this week I had a chance to visit the Manhattan headquarters of the design firm IDEO.  I enjoyed the tour, which culminated in a provocative discussion of how to advance the idea of procedural justice.  It was fun to brainstorm alongside professional brainstormers.  

I have written a lot about people that I admire on this blog.  One of the individuals I have mentioned the most is Jonathan Lippman, New York's former chief judge.  This week, I got to see Judge Lippman at his best, facilitating a panel on Housing Court at Fordham Law School organized by Poverty Justice Solutions.  Despite having just come back from an overseas trip and having basically no time to prepare, Lippman was able to weave together a broad-ranging conversation about the future of civil justice in New York City.  Lippman is nothing if not a quick study.  It reminded me of a quote I gave once to a reporter doing a profile of Lippman back when he was chief judge: "He's the chief of billions of dollars and employees, and a ton crosses his desk, but he knows my issues better than I do."

Finally, I call your attention to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks back for the Gotham Gazette: "Enhancing Fairness, Improving Outcomes: The Real Story of Problem-Solving Justice in New York."  At the Center for Court Innovation, we've been fortunate to attract a handful of thoughtful critics over the years -- people like Mae Quinn and Candace McCoy and James Nolan, among others. The latest in this line is Steve Zeidman, a professor at CUNY law school who wrote a disparaging piece about drug courts awhile back.   I mostly think it doesn't make sense to respond directly to critics, but I made an exception in Zeidman's case.  While I don't agree with him, I am thankful for his analysis, which offers important cautionary notes that all of us who are working to affect positive change within the justice system should remember. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

No Words

Tonight's vigil to honor the life of Lavon Walker, who was part of the founding team that helped to create Save Our Streets (SOS) Brooklyn, attracted several hundred family members, friends, community residents, and admirers.  The crowd overflowed the sidewalk in front of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and spilled out onto Kingston Avenue.

I wish I had words to make sense of Lavon's loss, but I don't.

Thankfully, there were loved ones and co-workers tonight capable of stepping up to this most difficult of tasks.  Fittingly, the vigil felt like a combination of memorial service and rally.  There were calls for justice -- but "the right way." There were appeals to support Lavon's family.  (If you feel like donating, click here.)  Most of all, there were pleas to honor Lavon's legacy by continuing the work he dedicated the last several years of his life to -- combatting violence on the streets of Brooklyn.  Cries of "Stop Shooting Start Living" drowned out other noises on the block and echoed out into the neighborhood.

I didn't know Lavon well, but what I knew I liked.  He had warmth and charisma and style.  But underneath the jokes was a seriousness of purpose.  You can see both qualities -- his charm and his sense of calling -- on display in the short film we made describing the Center for Court Innovation.  Lavon appears briefly at around the 5 minute mark, passing out cards publicizing SOS.

My thoughts and prayers are with Lavon's family and those who worked alongside him in Crown Heights.  He will be missed.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Farewell Chris Watler

Today marks Chris Watler's last day as the project director of the Harlem Community Justice Center.  Chris is leaving us to take on a big new challenge: overseeing the Center for Employment Opportunities' New York operations.  Chris is leaving us one week shy of his 20th anniversary at the Center for Court Innovation -- he has been with us since the start of this enterprise.  Along the way, he has made important contributions to a number of initiatives.  This is a version of what I said at his going away party earlier this week: 
Over the course of these two decades, I’ve had a chance to see Chris operate in a variety of different settings – in Red Hook and Crown Heights and Harlem.  I’ve seen him make speeches and galvanize audiences at big national conferences.  I’ve also seen him in the clinches at small meetings in our offices as we have wrestled with difficult decisions.  

But in thinking about what I wanted to say tonight, my first thought wasn’t about any of these moments.  Rather, my mind went back to something we did in the early days of relationship, outside of work. 

Most of you probably don’t know this, but for a bright, shining moment, Chris and I played on the same basketball team.  In the early days of our relationship, we played in one of the urban professional leagues that holds games around the city.

I’m someone who believes that sports reveals character.  So what did I learn about Chris from playing ball with him? 

I think it is easy when thinking about Chris to think big.  He’s a big man with a big personality.  He lights up a room.  He’s a charismatic presence. 

But what his game revealed, and what I truly cherish about the guy, was his commitment to doing the little things.  Chris was one of those players that was willing to the tough, unglamorous work of a basketball game: setting picks, blocking out, throwing a quick outlet pass.  With Chris, you never got the sense that he was worried about how many points he scored or how cool he looked.  Unlike me.  There was a purity about how he approached the sport and his commitment to the team.

I think all of you who have worked with Chris will recognize the quality that I’m talking about.  To steal a line from Hillary Clinton, Chris is great because Chris is good – a good man with a good heart who is committed to doing good in this world.

I will miss him. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Twenty Years

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Center for Court Innovation.  We’ve got a lot going on at the moment, so we are choosing not to mark this anniversary with a capital campaign or a gala fundraiser or anything like that. 

But we would be remiss if we didn’t pause for a minute or two to acknowledge how far we’ve come since 1996.  So over the next month or so, we will post a few features on our website – videos, photo galleries, testimonials – to celebrate our history.

I have been blessed to work at the Center for Court Innovation for all 20 years of its existence.  Back in 1996, the Center had only a handful of assets – the vision of our founding director John Feinblatt, the reputation of the Midtown Community Court, a strong relationship with the New York State court system, and the entrepreneurial energy of a core group of a couple dozen committed staffers.  Today, we are an organization of several hundred people, with operating programs in all five boroughs (plus Newark plus Syracuse plus Westchester), a research department with an international reputation, and a consulting practice that takes us around the world providing assistance to justice reformers.

I wish I could say that our growth has been the product of a carefully crafted strategic vision that we have pursued with rigorous discipline.  In truth, our expansion has been fueled primarily by luck and opportunism (in the best sense of the word, I hope). 

As we have grown, we have had to adapt and change.  I think it is fair to say that we have become a more hierarchal and bureaucratic institution.  If I am honest, I feel some ambivalence about this, but we have found it impossible to run an operation like ours without introducing formal structure and policies and procedures.

We have also had to respond to changing conditions in the world around us. 

We were born at a moment when conservative ideas about criminal justice were in ascendance in the US.  The country was in the middle of a 40 year expansion of the use of incarceration. New York had a Republican mayor and governor.  Against this backdrop, we attempted to make the case for meaningful alternatives to incarceration, increased use of data, respectful treatment of both defendants and victims, and community engagement by justice agencies. 

In many respects, we are still making the case for these ideas.  But the world around us has changed.  There is a growing recognition, across a fairly broad political spectrum, that the US has gone too far in the use of incarceration.  There is also an increasingly powerful movement, both outside and within the justice system, that is focused on addressing our country’s legacy of racism and the continued disparities in how people of color are treated.    

At the Center, we have changed with the times.  When we started, our work was focused primarily on what happens after someone has been adjudicated, providing judges with alternatives to jail sentences and fines (and, in some cases, nothing at all).   In recent years, we have been placing more and more attention on the pre-adjudicatory process.  This includes offering supervised release to reduce the use of bail and pre-trial detention and diversion programs to help keep young people out of the system entirely.  And it includes making a deeper investment in crime prevention, including providing a broad range of community-based youth development initiatives and fighting violence through street outreach and community education campaigns.

Acknowledging that the justice system can do a better job of creating a level playing field, the Center has placed an institutional bet on two other key areas of practice: access to justice and procedural fairness.  In truth, both of these issues have been with us from the start: our first project, the Midtown Community Court, was, after all, an effort to bring justice back to the neighborhood level while providing individual attention to each case.  But in recent months, we have tried to kick our work in these areas into a different gear, testing new ways of helping unrepresented civil litigants and spreading the concept of procedural justice to criminal courts across the country.

Even as we have adapted to changing times, some things have remained constant at the Center for Court Innovation. 

Our institutional culture is what has enabled us to endure and expand over the past two decades.  It is always difficult to talk about the culture of a place without lapsing into abstraction or self-flattery. But if I had to highlight the key values of our agency that I have tried hard to protect and preserve over the years, I would point to these six:

1. Creativity – We are not an Internet start-up.  We don’t have foosball tables or pinball machines in any of our offices.  But we do have the audacity to put “innovation” in the name of our agency.  Along with that comes a clear institutional mandate to test new ideas and to try to make a unique contribution to the world that is different from other agencies.

2. Practice – Our contributions to the world are reality-tested.  We run programs that work with challenging populations – chronic misdemeanants, parolees who have committed serious offenses, and traumatized victims, among many others.  And we work in challenging environments, including crime-plagued neighborhoods and overwhelmed centralized courthouses.  We know how difficult it is to change broken systems and to repair damaged neighborhoods because we are doing this work alongside our partners in the justice system and in the community each and every day.   We think our grounding in practice lends nuance and credibility to our thinking about reform.   

3. Modesty – As much as possible, we have tried to avoid making grandiose claims and setting utopian goals.  Instead, we have sought to achieve more modest aims – transforming specific neighborhoods and particular courtrooms and discrete populations of victims and defendants.  We think that there is virtue in starting small and providing carefully targeted interventions.  We also believe that successful pilot programs can lead to major change if you are patient enough to see them through. (Yes, I recognize the irony that I am bragging about our modesty.)

4. Details – We believe that the little things matter enormously.  This is why we work hard to repair conditions of disorder at the neighborhood level.  This is why we are focused on how judges and attorneys and police officers communicate with the public.  This is why we spend time thinking about the wording of documents and the architecture of spaces.  Sweating the details of implementation is one way we demonstrate our commitment to excellence.

5. Diversity – Despite being in the legal reform business (broadly defined), we have never been an agency staffed primarily by lawyers from elite schools.  Rather, we have sought to attract a diverse array of people to the challenge of justice reform.  This includes hiring a diverse staff along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, etc. It also includes bringing together people of disparate professional training and background – not just lawyers but social scientists and technologists and victim advocates and social workers and community organizers and journalists.  At the end of the day, all we offer to the world is the strength and depth of our team.

6. Reflection – The act of reflection is built into our daily work.  When our technical assistance team makes site visits to other jurisdictions, they don’t come pretending that they have all the answers.  And they don’t come to conduct didactic lectures.  Rather, they come to ask questions, to listen closely to the answers, and to help local leaders figure out how to solve local problems.  In a similar vein, we engage our research team in examining our own operating programs on a regular basis to help us find new ways to improve our practice. 

The values I have listed here are not the only ones that matter to us.  I’m sure if you asked a dozen Center for Court Innovation staffers, you’d hear them point to our commitment to love and kindness, our belief in the human capacity for change, our non-ideological and non-partisan approach to reform, our business model of working in partnership with government, and a variety of other elements that make us unique.  But these are the primary values that have guided my efforts on behalf of the Center for Court Innovation. 

I am enormously proud of what we have accomplished over the past two decades.  I am mindful of all of the partners we have relied upon along the way – there are so many individuals and agencies that it is impossible to do justice to them all here.  Finally, I am grateful to work alongside colleagues who are decent and fair and funny and committed to making the world a better place.  

I am looking forward to seeing what the next twenty years brings...