Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For the Record


Today, the New York Post ran an op-ed criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “empty” anti-violence plan.  The op-ed takes particular issue with the Mayor’s commitment to spreading the Cure Violence model, which seeks to halt retaliatory violence by sending trained “violence interrupters” out on the streets to mediate conflicts before they escalate.

The article makes several references to public health programs run by the Center for Court Innovation (we have helped implement the Cure Violence model in Crown Heights and the South Bronx) and to a research report that we issued documenting the results of our experiment in Crown Heights.

The author of the opinion piece claims that there is “no evidence” to suggest that the public health approach to gun violence works.  This is not accurate.   In fact, our evaluation of the Crown Heights project found a statistically significant 20 percent decrease in shooting rates in the neighborhood over three years when compared with the rate of shootings in three adjacent neighborhoods with similar demographics and crime rates.

These results are consistent with the findings from a series of independent evaluations that have documented the positive impact of the Cure Violence model, including a 2009 study from Chicago that found a 16-28 percent reduction in gun violence in 4 of 7 program neighborhoods, and a 2010 study in Baltimore which again showed statistically significant violence reductions in all program areas. Based on these evaluations, the Cure Violence model is included as a “promising” program in the federal register of evidence-based programs (crimesolutions.gov).

The literature on Cure Violence is still emerging, but the model has generated enough evidence to suggest that it is an approach worth attempting on a broader scale.  In the months ahead, we hope to continue to add to the literature.  We are currently participating in an independent evaluation conducted by the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College that will examine the impact of the Cure Violence model in two New York City neighborhoods.  With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers will document whether the program helps change social norms in violent communities.

In sum, through our work with Cure Violence and other crime prevention initiatives, we are doing what we always do at the Center for Court Innovation: testing new approaches to difficult problems and documenting the results so that the field of criminal justice can learn from our experience.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Groundswell


I spent the bulk of this beautiful summer day touring Brooklyn alongside my friends at Groundswell. For those who don't know the organization, Groundswell is a youth service/arts/community development organization that puts young people to work creating public murals.  We have partnered with them on a number of such projects, including several that are currently in process in Brownsville.  

These projects accomplish several goals at once.  They help send the message that someone cares about the physical environment of the neighborhood.  And they engage dozens of young people, many of them with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system, in positive, pro-social activities.

In addition to helping to advance our mission to reduce crime and change the life trajectories of our program participants, the murals also stand alone as beautiful works of art.


This is a shot of a mural called "Intersections Humanized" just off Pitkin Boulevard in Brownsville. 


This is a fragment of a work in progress that is located on the side of a grocery store located across from a public housing development in Brownsville.  Before Groundswell went to work, the wall was full of tags and peeling paint. 
  

I met a number of artists and young people on the tour, all of whom were highly motivated to make both art and a positive contribution to their community.  In this respect, they embodied the values that have made Groundswell such a good partner over the years.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Curing Violence


In Harlem this morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by an array of leaders from the city council and various city agencies, announced an ambitious new effort to prevent gun violence by expanding the Cure Violence model across the five boroughs. The Mayor highlighted SOS Crown Heights as "the exemplar" of the public health approach to violence reduction in New York.  He also cited the strength of the city's "partnership with the Center for Court Innovation" as a key building block going forward.  In addition, our study, "Testing a Public Health Approach to Gun Violence" was cited several times.

But best of all, our own Ife Charles (pictured above) was one of the featured speakers at the announcement. I've written about Ife before so it came as no surprise to me that she was arguably the most powerful and persuasive speaker at the event.  Ife talked eloquently about the importance of collaboration in combating violence; she argued that to address a problem as multi-faceted and as well-entrenched as violence requires the work of multiple city agencies (including both criminal justice agencies and social service agencies) and dozens of local actors, including clergy and community groups.

Inter-agency collaboration is difficult of course.  Our own research suggests that it is one of the leading causes of failure in criminal justice reform.  While it remains to be seen how effective the Cure Violence replications will be at reducing shootings in New York, the good news from today is that there is a genuine commitment on the part of multiple partners to tackling a problem that has festered for too long.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Defying Gravity


Last night I went to see the musical Wicked on Broadway.  I had seen the show six or seven years ago when my friend Ana Gasteyer had one of the lead roles.  Yesterday, we were celebrating my daughter Milly's birthday, which is a happy occasion of course, but I returned to Wicked without much enthusiasm.  Knowing that the show has been around since the early 2000s, I expected a stale, soulless production.  And since I had already seen it once before, I knew there would be no narrative surprises in store for me.

Despite my preconceived notions, I found myself taken in by the show.  For anyone who hasn't seen it, Wicked features numerous great songs and a moving story that has something interesting to say about friendship, celebrity culture, and the challenges of adolescence.  Despite being one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, Wicked still remains fresh and vital, at least to my eyes and ears.

I bring all of this up because I had a similar experience earlier in the day when I visited Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, our new program that combines pre-trial supervised release and post-adjudication alternatives to incarceration.  In many respects, what we are trying to do with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives is to bring some of the principles and practices of the Red Hook Community Justice Center into the centralized criminal court in downtown Brookyn.

This is no small undertaking.  As anyone who has visited Red Hook can attest, part of the magic of the project is its intimate scale and pilot setting.   By contrast, the downtown courthouse in Brooklyn is a mammoth building that houses dozens of courtrooms and hundreds of judges, attorneys, administrators and others.  I came to my site visit to Brooklyn Justice Initiatives with some trepidation that we would be able to replicate the feeling of Red Hook within this larger institution.

I'm happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by my visit.  Just as Wicked has somehow managed to keep the same DNA over the course of thousands of performances, so too has Brooklyn Justice Initiatives managed to import a good chunk of Red Hook into a very different context.

I'm still trying to piece together how we have managed this trick.  Some of it is clearly the physical space that we occupy within the building, which we have been able to renovate with the help of the Probitas Foundation and the architect Alta Indelman.  And some of it is certainly due to the quality of the staff that we have been able to attract.  Both our staff and our space take pains to communicate a message of respect to the defendants who find themselves as clients in our program.  This is procedural justice 101.

I hope it is not self-delusion, but I also think there is something special about the Center for Court Innovation's approach -- about our willingness to roll up our sleeves and work alongside judges and probation officers and attorneys and our desire to change the justice system from within -- that connects Brooklyn Justice Initiatives to the Red Hook Community Justice Center and to all of our other operating projects.  I think our organizational culture is alive and well in the downtown courthouse.

It is still early days with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives.  We will have to wait to see if we are able to keep alive the spirit I have attempted to describe over the course of many years.  But all of the initial signs, both in terms of the qualitative experience and the quantitative results, are pointed in the right direction.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Video on Demand



Telling stories is a big part of what we do at the Center for Court Innovation.  We often find ourselves trying to communicate complicated justice reform ideas to skeptical audiences, whether they be funders, community groups, or system insiders.  In recent years, video has become a larger and larger part of our communications effort.  This reflects improvements in technology that have made it easier and cheaper to create and disseminate short films.  It also reflects the talents of our communications director, Robert Wolf, who has become an adept filmmaker.   

You can see the latest videos from the Center by checking out our YouTube channel.  To give you just a taste of what you will find, here are the top 10 most viewed videos from our website over the past year:

1.  Drug Courts: Personal Stories -- first-person interviews with drug court graduates from across New York State featuring former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye.

2.  Family Voices in Juvenile Justice -- a guide to Family Court for parents whose children have delinquency cases.

3.  Changing Lives: The Story of the Center for Court Innovation -- an introduction to the Center that premiered at our 15th anniversary celebration featuring two of our program graduates. 

4.  Why Procedural Justice Matters: Tom R. Tyler at Community Justice 2012 --Yale Law Professor Tom Tyler's presentation at our community justice conference in Washington DC.

5.  Fundamentals of Procedural Fairness -- a "Procedural Justice 101" presentation that seeks to explain the basic principles. 

6.  Testing New Ideas: Evidence, Innovation and Community Courts -- created with the help of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, this video highlights community courts across the US.

7.  Justice That Works: The Midtown Community Court -- a description of the Midtown Community Court, created as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the project.

8.  Attendance Video -- a look at an experiment that we launched to address chronic truancy in Harlem.

9.  Talking It Through: A Teen-Police Dialogue -- created by the Youth Justice Board, our after-school youth leadership program, this video seeks to encourage police-youth conversations.

10.  Failure: Public Policy’s Stepladder to Success -- an excerpt from a panel convened by the Urban Institute as part of the roll-out of the book Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure.

Monday, July 28, 2014

More Informed Decisions


When the Midtown Community Court was first launched in the 1990s, technology played an important role in the design of the project.  Together with our partners at the Vera Institute of Justice, we designed a brand-new application that sought to help the judge and others manage cases, track compliance with alternatives to incarceration, and document results.  The resulting application received the Windows World Open Award for public sector innovation.

The next iteration of the Midtown technology was called the Justice Center Application and was designed to accompany the development of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  This cutting-edge case management system leveraged two technologies that were new at the time: the Internet and a web browser interface.

Remarkably, with regular tweaks and modifications, we have been able to use the Justice Center Application as our primary case management system for more than a decade, not just in Red Hook but in multiple other locations.  Each year, it has enabled us to keep tabs on thousands of defendants and others performing a broad range of services in a variety of different settings. The application has served us enormously well, but its days are basically numbered.  The technology landscape had changed substantially since we developed the Justice Center Application.  Cloud computing and the ability to use files and applications over the Internet now allows organizations to purchase computing, storage and applications on an as-needed basis.  In addition, there are now more flexible ways to develop software that enable technologists to fix bugs and add features on the fly.


With the help of Cahoot Court Systems, we are currently working to take advantage of these advances.  Together, we are building a new case management system that will (knock wood) not only serve the needs of multiple Center for Court Innovation programs, but also be a tool that will be useful to problem-solving courts and alternative-to-incarceration programs across the country and around the world.



Among other features, the new application will be able to maintain multiple assessments for each client, enabling clinicians to know, at any given moment, how many times a person has been assessed, the assessment instrument that was used, and the answers that the client provided.  Where underlying licenses allow, the application will be able to import questions from 3rd party-created assessment instruments, eliminating the need for duplicate data entry.  Scanned copies of documents, images and electronically delivered attachments (criminal histories, arrest reports, orders of protection) can all be attached to case files.  All of which will deliver more complete information to case managers and others who are responsible for tracking client progress. 

Crucially, the application will be adaptable to phones and tablets, allowing for portability and flexibility -- frontline staff will not be tied to a desktop computer.  And a dashboard feature will give managers and researchers real-time access to the metrics and information they identify as important.

We are hoping to pilot test the new application this fall.  Stay tuned for more updates as we proceed...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Youth Court in Brooklyn


The timing was unfortunate (smack in the middle of the US-Belgium World Cup game), but this afternoon's youth court graduation ceremony in Brooklyn was a special one for a few reasons.

It was, to my knowledge, the first time that we have done a joint event bringing together our youth courts from Brownsville and Red Hook.  As a manager, cross-pollination makes me happy, particularly when it isn't forced from above but bubbles up organically from the ground level.  The combined ceremony made for a bigger event, with more graduates, more inductees, and a larger audience.

The other thing that made the event special was the setting (a beautiful ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn) and the keynote speech by Judge John Gleeson of the US District Court.

Gleeson addressed the teen youth court members as his "little brothers and sisters in the administration of justice."  He called youth court "a breath of fresh air" for its emphasis on restoring the community, treating respondents with respect, and providing opportunities for young people to interact with the justice system in a positive way.  And he closed by making the case that youth courts could help play a role in changing perceptions of justice and addressing the problem of over-incarceration. "Too many people think of courts as portals to prison," said Gleeson.  I'm not sure I've ever heard a better articulation of the power and potential of the youth court model.

Gleeson's remarks were echoed by several of the youth court members who spoke.  One in particular talked about how he had initially joined the program to satisfy community service requirements for school but soon realized that the youth court was teaching him "how to be a better citizen."

Several dozen teenagers from Red Hook and Brownsville participated in the ceremony today.  I have no idea how many will end up becoming lawyers when they grow up.  But I don't have much doubt that many of them have become and will remain active participants in their communities as a result of their involvement in youth court.  And that's something to feel good about as an American, no matter how the US-Belgium game turned out.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Alternate Universe



I have written about my admiration for the Vera Institute of Justice and its founder Herb Sturz on numerous occasions.  While many of Herb's accomplishments are well known, one that gets less attention is the novel he co-wrote in 1958.   I haven't read the book (which is called Reapers of the Storm -- look for it on eBay), but I love the fact that he wrote it.  I think it speaks to the kind of creativity that Herb sought to bring to the criminal justice system and the non-profit sector.  

I have tried to emulate this value at the Center for Court Innovation.  In job interviews, I always ask applicants about their outside interests.  Sometimes (not always) this offers a glimpse of their inner creativity.  Over the years, I have worked alongside serious photographers, poets, stationery designers, songwriters, chefs, and musicians (among other disciplines).  I think this is a big part of what makes coming to work fun for me.  

All of which brings me to last night and a wonderful book party to celebrate the simultaneous release of two novels -- The Alternate Universe and The Escape -- by Rob Wolf.  I have had the distinct pleasure of reading Rob's work for the past 15 years.  As the Center for Court Innovation's communications director, he has been responsible for creating many of our best products, including podcasts and films and white papers.  He has won several awards from The National Council on Crime and Delinquency for his efforts to further public understanding of justice issues.  

Rob is quite simply a great writer.  His prose is crisp, clear, and tight.  Now he is bringing his talent not to the task of advancing criminal justice reform but to the challenge of fiction.  His two new books are science fiction stories with a heavy dose of time travel.  If the rest of the books are as good as the excerpt he read last night, which featured a complicated and humorous exchange with a robot manservant, we are all in for a treat. 


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Basketball and Mortality


I was excited to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight, which figured to be intensely competitive.  Instead, I'm watching the Miami Heat have their hearts ripped out by the relentless San Antonio Spurs.  

As it happens, basketball and death have been on my mind a lot of late.   I feel like I have a weekly date with my own mortality.  It’s my Wednesday night pick-up basketball game at a local high school in Brooklyn. 
I get noticeably worse at basketball with almost every passing week.  I also get injured on a regular basis -- over the past year or so, I have broken a finger, pulled a hamstring and torn a calf muscle.  My body is sending me pretty unequivocal message: stop playing.

My ego seconds that emotion.  My skills peaked more than two decades ago.  Now I’m at the far right end of the bell curve in terms of my playing ability, the place where the graph flattens out to zero.  Over the years, I have gone from one of the better guys in my weekly game to one of the worst.

But still I keep going back.  Why?  It is a question I ask myself often. 

Peer pressure is not the reason -- after all, most of my closest friends have already given up the sport, some more than a decade ago.  

Nor am I trying to re-live past glories.  The truth is that I was never much of a player.  I lacked the strength, height and grace under pressure necessary to play the game at a high level.  

But despite this lack of success, I have always thought of myself as a ballplayer.  And I still do. 

Why should my sense of my self be tied up with a children’s game?  Perhaps it is because I fell in love with the game as a child.  Growing up in Washington DC in the 1980s, basketball offered me an identity, a sense of belonging to a community beyond my family, and a means of bridging the racial divide in a highly-segregated city. 

Children are often encouraged to play organized sports because doing so offers important “life lessons.” From playing basketball in my formative years, I learned how to make friends with people of diverse backgrounds.  I learned how to sublimate my ego for the greater good of a team. And I learned how to adapt to the whims of cruel and arbitrary authority figures (also known as “coaches”).  I call upon these lessons almost every day as an adult.

But these days basketball offers me lessons not about life but about death.  My diminishing skills on the court are like a dress rehearsal for the aging process that all of us eventually must face in the real world. Basketball is forcing me to wrestle with my own frailties on a weekly basis.  It may not always be fun, but it does feel valuable.  

Getting Connected


Tonight, the Youth Justice Board, our after-school leadership program that seeks to bring the voice of New York City teens into policymaking decisions, unveiled its latest product during a presentation at the Manhattan Referral Center for High School Alternatives.

In partnership with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the Youth Justice Board has created a new website dedicated to providing disconnected young people with access to the kinds of resources they need to get back in school and working towards a better future.   This is the same partnership that produced one of my all-time favorite Center for Court Innovation products -- the I Got Arrested!  Now What? comic book -- so there are good reasons to be excited about the new website, which should go online in the next couple of months.

The website is designed primarily to be used on a smartphone and offers answers to common questions faced by young people who have dropped out of school, as well as links to a variety of social service providers.  After a keynote address by the great Tim Lisante of the New York City Department of Education, the members of the Youth Justice Board walked the audience through how a typical teen would use the website.  They were so much more serious and poised than I was at a similar age, it isn't even funny.  The fact that the crowd included high-ranking officials from the Mayor's Office and a range of government and non-profit agencies didn't faze them in the slightest.

Tonight marks the culmination of the Youth Justice Board's efforts to study and combat chronic truancy, which included issuing the report From Absent to Present: Reducing Teen Chronic Absenteeism in New York City.  Next year's cohort will take on a new subject: creating new diversion options for the NYPD.  I can't wait to see what they come up with.