Monday, January 15, 2018

A Dream As Yet Unfulfilled


This photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. hangs in my bedroom in Brooklyn.   Beyond liking the composition of the shot, I chose the photo for a couple of reasons. First, I was attracted to the intimacy of the image.  It does not capture King making a speech or leading a demonstration or meeting with world leaders, but rather hanging out in a hotel room reading the newspaper. For me, this is a reminder of King’s basic humanity; he was, at the end of the day, a normal person called to perform extraordinary deeds.

I also chose the photo for its historical significance.  King is pictured on the cusp of a major civil rights event: a march across the breadth of Mississippi that he undertook in 1966 after James Meredith (the man responsible for integrating the University of Mississippi) was shot by a would-be assassin. 

The Meredith March Against Fear was the subject of my college thesis, which argued that the demonstration was a pivotal event in the history of the civil rights movement – the moment when things began to fall apart.  Stokely Carmichael’s use of the slogan “black power” along the course of the march made national news, helping to expose a fault line between militant civil rights groups and those who were more interested in working with and within existing American institutions.

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught in the middle of this conflict.  King was both a radical and a moderate.  He was a fierce critic of American engagement in Vietnam and economic inequality at home.  At the same time, he never wavered from his commitment to non-violence and what he called “Negro-White unity.”  In my thesis, I wrote this:

King’s ability to avoid a retreat into bitterness and despair is testimony to the power of his idealism.  Throughout his life, King was motivated, in large part, by a sense of the possibilities of American democracy. He dreamed of creating a “beloved community” with a zeal that rivaled the Puritan longing for a shining city on a hill.  Although King would admit that the “the nation is sick,” he never abandoned his vision of American equality.  “In a real sense,” King said,

America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.  It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.

These are difficult days for those of us who still believe in the American dream.  Seemingly every day, there is a new assault on core American values like pluralism, tolerance, and civility.  All too often these assaults are coming from inside the White House itself -- the latest being the President’s denigration of immigrants from Haiti and other countries.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s rebuke of the President was admirably succinct: “America is an idea, not a race.”

Just a few things I am thinking about on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crisis Reading List


One of words that I notice being used a lot these days is "unprecedented" (usually with regard to some violation of long-accepted "norms").  I understand the logic, and the emotion, behind this phenomenon. After all, the past 12 months have seen a number of events -- Nazis marching in Virginia, the threat of nuclear conflict with North Korea, attacks on the media and other crucial civic institutions, etc. -- that have felt uniquely destabilizing.

Perhaps for this reason, my reading list for 2017 veered toward non-fiction grounded in crisis.  I started the year with The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is an intellectual history of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two academics credited with creating the field of behavioral economics. Their friendship was forged in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even as he traces the arc of Kahneman and Tversky's career, Lewis takes pains to highlight the context that gave birth to their partnership: the sense of existential vulnerability experienced by Israelis during the early years of the country, which were marked by violence and conflict.

Next I turned to Thomas Ricks' Churchill and Orwell, a joint history of two legendary figures from England.  The context for the book is World War II, but Ricks seems to be writing with at least one eye on our present moment.  He lauds his two subjects for their shared commitment to truth over ideology and their willingness to take on political extremists on the Left and the Right.  In a way, it is a crazy book -- Ricks doesn't unearth any new historical material and his two central characters never actually interact with each other. But I thought the book worked on the strength of Ricks' storytelling and skill as a writer.  After reading the book, I saw that he went out of his way to credit his editor with helping him polish the manuscript.  Good on him.

I've written before about James Forman's Locking Up Our Own, my favorite criminal justice book of 2017, so I won't go into detail about it here, but it too describes a time and a place of crisis: Washington DC in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

My calamity reading list reached its apogee with Alwyn Turner's Crisis? What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s.  This was actually the second book I read on this topic, along with Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies.  Both books offer a helpful  perspective on the current emergencies in the United States.  The winter of discontent...three-day work weeks...a series of disruptive labor strikes...trash piling up in Leicester Square...declining trust in government combined with a rise in political extremism -- the sense of a country coming apart at the seams was, I would argue, stronger in the UK in the 70s than it is now in the US.

I can't say that I have figured out some grand unifying theory or tidy set of lessons from all of these books.  But I have taken some (perhaps perverse?) comfort.  The times we are living through are challenging to be sure, but they are not wholly without precedent.  I am enough of an optimist to believe that better days are ahead of us if we can, collectively, summon the better angels of our nature. Best wishes for the new year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

At This Moment



Last week we held our annual Center for Court Innovation holiday party.  It was a good moment to reflect on where we are as an agency.  

We have grown significantly over the past several years.  Since 2015, our budget has almost doubled.  We now touch the lives of tens of thousands of people on an annual basis through our youth development, crime prevention, reentry, alternative-to-incarceration, and court-based programs.  The holiday party was a visible symbol of our reach -- there were hundreds of people there representing our programs in all five boroughs plus various points outside of the city. 

Even as we have grown in size, we have attempted to remain artisanal, for lack of a better word.  What I mean is that we have tried to forge an approach to justice reform that is unbureaucratic and homespun.  The holiday party offered a symbol of this as well.  For more than two decades, we have hosted a baking competition as part of our holiday party.  The bake-off is one of my favorite Center for Court Innovation traditions -- there is something powerful and generous (and of course, hand-crafted) about the act of baking.  The entries this year were bananas -- see below for a particularly over-the-top example.


We are coming to the end of a year unlike any other that I have experienced at the Center for Court Innovation.  I cannot claim that this has been one of my favorite years.  The external environment has been stressful, to say the least.  We are living through a time of uncertainty and division.  The outrageous has become commonplace.  

All of this has raised challenging questions for the Center for Court Innovation.  Do we need to adapt to changing conditions in the world around us?  In many respects, we have done exactly this. We have sharpened our focus on racial disparities in the justice system.  We have engaged in an ambitious effort to encourage the City of New York to close Rikers Island.  We have tried to advance the idea of diversion, providing meaningful off-ramps so that many cases never have to come to court at all.  And we have dramatically expanded the reach of our alternative-to-incarceration and alternative-to-detention programs, serving hundreds of additional people each year. 

But even as we have shifted to meet the demands of our current moment, we have also attempted to stay true to the underlying values that have been at the core of our work since our origin.  These include a commitment to working in concert with reformers within government, a belief in the value of incremental change, and a dedication to research and careful, evidence-driven program planning.  

One of our most important values is a faith in the possibility of positive change.  At the Center, we are trying to advance an affirmative vision of what justice can and should look like.  Each day, we are working alongside judges, attorneys, law enforcement officers, probation officials and others to nudge our government closer to realizing this vision.  This work is hard.  It can be unglamorous and messy.  It is almost always full of compromise.  But it is real. And it is desperately needed.

As the director of the Center for Court Innovation, my role in all of this is primarily facilitative and administrative.  I do not provide services to any defendants.  I don't work directly with any young people.  But I am motivated in no small part by my admiration and respect for those who do.  I have written in the past about the importance of love to the daily work that goes on in our programs.  This year, more than any other, I have been inspired by the generosity of the case managers and outreach workers and violence interrupters and other frontline staffers who have chosen to devote their time and energy to the Center for Court Innovation.  If you would like to help support their work, I encourage you to make a year-end donation, as I have. 





Monday, December 4, 2017

A New Look


We recently unveiled a new logo and a new website for the Center for Court Innovation.  

Created by the Brooklyn-based firm Bardo Industries, our new logo provides us with a fresh look as we enter our third decade.  From a design perspective, this was no easy assignment. We asked Bardo to create a logo that was new, bold, and modern.  At the same time, we also wanted to hit a note of continuity, emphasizing that the Center is building on a successful track record.  
 
Another important design goal was greater flexibility. One of the challenges presented by our old logo was that there was only a single version.  By contrast, there are multiple iterations of the new logo -- it can be adapted to suit a variety of contexts and formats.  Among other things, this will enable us to have a stronger visual presence on social media.


Bardo is no stranger to the Center for Court Innovation. Over the last couple years, they’ve designed posters for the Brownsville Community Justice Center, invitations for the Red Hook Community Justice Center, and postcards for the Center’s 20th anniversary. To develop the new logo, they toured several of our operating programs and held focus groups with a variety of staffers to gain a better understanding of our work and our values.  They also spent weeks researching other logos to make sure that our new mark would stand out in a crowd. 

I'm enormously pleased with the result.  For me, the new logo conjures a host of positive associations -- the opening of a book, the slipstream behind a fast-moving object, the bars on a research graphic...One person I showed the logo to said it reminded her of our work to rethink incarceration -- that we are turning the bars of a cell on their side. 

Bardo is also helping us with the design for our upcoming benefit, which will be held on March 13, 2018 at the Rubin Museum, so stay tuned for more smart graphic design from the Center for Court Innovation. 
 

 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Valerie Raine


Tonight, we celebrated the career of Valerie Raine, who helped establish the Brooklyn Treatment Court back in the 1990s.  Val then went on to be a key force spreading drug courts across the state and ensuring that they hit the highest possible standards of excellence. Val is retiring after 20 years at the Center for Court Innovation.

Val first crossed my radar screen in 1996.  Back then, the New York Times ran an article about the  planning of the Brooklyn Treatment Court entitled “Drug Court Seeks to End Revolving Door Justice.”  The piece talked about how great the Treatment Court was going to be and featured quotes from Tim Murray and JoAnn Ferdinand and John Feinblatt extolling the virtues of this new project.  The only negative quote was from Val, then at the Legal Aid Society.

Not long after that, for reasons that are still a little unclear to me, Val decided to join the Center for Court Innovation to lead the very project that she had just publicly criticized to millions of readers.  Nothing I had ever seen in my professional life to that point prepared me for the Valerie Raine experience.  She was an enormous personality. This, combined with the stress that always accompanies a high-profile start-up, made for some dramatic moments.

I mostly sat on the sideline and watched.  Little did I know that I would become Val’s boss, at least nominally, a few years later.  It didn’t seem like a marriage that was destined for success.  From Val’s perspective, I brought precious little to the table – not much knowledge of the justice system, not much management experience, and not much personality. 

In search of advice, I went to my friend Eric Lee who told me that Val’s bark was worse than her bite.  I think I found that notion reassuring at the time.  I also found it not to be true.  Over the years, I have felt Val’s bark and her bite, and I can tell you that both are pretty bad. But I will say this: in my experience, when Val bites, it is always for good reason.  Val is someone with a keen sense of justice and the willingness and the capacity to fight on behalf of the underdog. 

In truth, lots of ex-public defenders are righteous warriors for justice. What makes Val special in my estimation is something that I have always attributed to her background as an actress.  For me, she has the soul of an artist.  She brings empathy and creativity and humor and improvisation to her work.  She’s an amazing storyteller and she uses that gift to make friends and win over enemies. 

That’s why Val was been able to thrive over the course of her career at Legal Aid, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Office of Court Administration.  And that’s why she has been able to shift the entire landscape of justice in New York.  Because, make no mistake, that's what drug courts have done over the past 20 years.  And there simply would not have been a drug court movement in New York, and certainly not a sustained one, without Val. 

It was an enormous honor to work with Val over the past couple of decades.  I will miss her.  And I know our field will too. 


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Jeff Hobbs


Last night, we bid farewell to one of the foundations of our organization: Jeff Hobbs.  Jeff was part of the original team at the Midtown Community Court.  He is retiring after 24 years of service to the project. 

It took a measure of courage to join the Midtown team back in 1993. There was no track record of success at that point, no proof to document that this new approach to justice would work. But Jeff recognized the potential.  His signing up was an important piece of the puzzle, helping to give life and meaning to what before had simply been some abstract ideas about rethinking misdemeanor justice on a piece of paper. 

From the very start, Jeff was a major presence.  He was really the person who put the "community" in the Midtown Community Court. His sense of humor and can-do attitude helped create a sense of team spirit among staff.  And his gregariousness and ability to improvise helped engage local residents in ways that no courthouse had ever done before.

But perhaps the biggest thing that Jeff brought to the table, which he talked about last night at his going-away party, was a sense of love and respect for those who came into the building as defendants and left as clients and sometimes even friends.  Before anyone here had ever heard of "procedural justice," Jeff showed us what it meant to communicate to the public with clarity and dignity.  We owe him a big debt for this. 

We also owe him a debt for his decision to stick around.  Jeff was one of the very first people to choose to make a career at the Center for Court Innovation. His example showed that the Center was an institution with staying power that could nurture and sustain its staff over the long haul. 

When I first met Jeff, I was in my mid twenties.  I was a newcomer to New York and to the world of criminal justice. He could easily have seen me as a rival or an obstacle or just a pain in the ass.  Instead, showed me kindness, helping to educate me about the realities of life on the ground in the justice system.  I was far from alone in this.  Jeff may have been one of a kind, but I have no doubt that we will be seeing his influence on hundreds of people -- colleagues, graduates of Midtown's fatherhood program, community leaders, and justice reformers around the country -- for years to come.   

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.