Saturday, March 17, 2018

Celebrating Innovators

This past week, the Center for Court Innovation threw a fundraiser honoring innovators from a variety of fields who have helped to make New York a better place.  To supplement the Center's official recounting of the event, I thought I'd offer a few selections from the files of photographer Michael Falco.

Honoree Quardean Lewis-Allen of Made in Brownsville talking with actor Jeffrey Wright, who served as the MC for the event.

Nick Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice with Rachel Williams of Morrison & Foerster and Sarah Williams of Propel Capital.  Sarah and Propel were honored for philanthropic innovation.

Honoree MaryAnne Gilmartin of LL&MAG and Center for Court Innovation alum Amanda Burden, now at Bloomberg Associates.  (That's my mom in the background and Liberty Aldrich of the Center for Court Innovation in the foreground.)

The Center for Court Innovation runs on collaboration.  Thankfully, in New York we are blessed with a number of great judicial partners.  Here are three from Brooklyn: judges Michael Yavinsky, Gerianne Abriano, and Alex Calabrese pose with Amanda Berman of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

We honored New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore for her work to rethink the judicial response to the opioid crisis and her support of providing legal information to unrepresented litigants, among other achievements.  In this photo, she talks with Sherene Crawford of the Midtown Community Court and Ron Richter of JCCA. 

In recent years, we have done a great deal of work with the Manhattan DA's Office, including launching Project Reset, a diversion program that helps participants avoid going to court altogether.  Nitin Savur and District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. were both good enough to come to our event. 

Maybe my favorite photo from the party -- Victoria Pratt of TED talk fame at the podium.

Anyone who has ever put together a party for 250+ guests knows how challenging it can be.  Dozens of people at the Center for Court Innovation helped make the event special.  Here are some of them. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Cost of Good Intentions

The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment was written nearly forty years ago.  It is full of municipal jargon and the names of city bureaucrats that have long been forgotten.  And I found it absolutely riveting.  It makes for cautionary reading for anyone who is interested in expanding government's commitment to achieving social change.

The book's central character is John Lindsay, New York City's mayor for the tumultuous period of 1966-1973. Lindsay was a figure of both probity and charisma.  He successfully attracted a new generation of talented reformers into city government.  He improved the management of many city agencies and helped fight corruption in the police department.  He worked hard to engage New York's black and Latino population; indeed, his outreach is credited with helping New York avoid some of the urban unrest that roiled other American cities in the 1960s.

Lindsay's great strengths were balanced by significant weaknesses.  Some of these weaknesses were characterological. According to Morris:

The puritan's vision of the universe as a constant struggle between good and evil infused Lindsay's first months in office...The New York Times reported his obvious pleasure in conceiving himself as "a lone figure at war with the power structure."...Lindsay's grandiose conception of himself and his powers struck seasoned insiders as fatuous, and certainly arrogant.

Lindsay was hardly alone in seeing the world in stark moral terms -- he was in many ways emblematic of his times.  Morris is sympathetic to the challenges Lindsay faced.  A veteran of city government himself, Morris understands that managing New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s was no easy task.  He also provides important context, framing how New York's performance under Lindsay compared to other American cities of the era.  (Spoiler alert: Not that bad!)

Morris' fair-mindedness makes his ultimate judgement of Lindsay, and Lindsay's project, all the more powerful:

The soaring rhetoric of Lindsay's first administration did not lend itself to easy translation into day-to-day measuring rods of performance and seems to have generated only confusion and hostility among front-line workers.  Not just Lindsay, but liberals generally began to expect very much more from government in the 1960s...the entire battalion of city agencies -- parks, welfare, police, housing, the anti-poverty programs, hospitals, even sanitation -- were to be part of a massive effort at uplift, a final breaking-through of the barriers of oppression and discrimination that prolonged the abject misery of blacks and Hispanics...It was a splendid vision, but one that was seriously flawed, and from a management perspective, positively damaging.  City government is for the most part a fairly dull and mundane business...The sudden call to lofty achievement was, for most agencies, simply muddling.

These are important observations for today's criminal justice reformers.  So is Morris' conclusion that many of the city's well-meaning anti-poverty initiatives "had a strong tendency to emphasize symbol over content, to value structure and participation over program results."  Getting the details of implementation right and winning over the hearts of minds of frontline government practitioners (or at least figuring out how to prevent them from sabotaging new ideas and practices that they don't like)  are essential to any serious effort to reform the criminal justice system.

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.