Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fighting Poverty, Closing the Justice Gap

Tonight marked the official launch of Poverty Justice Solutions, our new initiative that seeks to achieve multiple goals simultaneously: preventing eviction (and the resulting economic hardship), improving access to justice in New York City Housing Court, strengthening local legal service providers, and encouraging an ethic of service among law school graduates...plus a few others that I'm probably forgetting.

The project is the product of a partnership between the Center for Court Innovation, New York State Court System, Robin Hood Foundation, New York City Human Resources Administration, Mayer Brown LLP, and numerous legal service providers.  Twenty newly-minted attorneys will receive a two-year fellowship to represent indigent clients in Housing Court.  (Many are graduates of the pro bono scholars program initiated by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.)  Along the way, we will provide them with special educational opportunities above and beyond the training they receive from their host organizations.  Our hope is that this group will develop not just into first-rate attorneys, but the next generation of leaders who will advance the field of civil justice.

In his remarks at tonight's gathering, Judge Lippman placed Poverty Justice Solutions in the context of the battle to close the "justice gap" -- the staggering numbers of poor New Yorkers who must go to court to address fundamental issues related to their housing, or their families, or their jobs, without the benefit of legal representation.  Twenty new lawyers won't fix this problem by themselves, of course, but we hope that when combined with increased funding for legal services from the city and the state and other innovative programs like the Immigrant Justice Corps, we can make a significant dent.

Here's a link to a piece in the New York Law Journal about Poverty Justice Solutions.

Friday, August 7, 2015

In Praise of My Father-In-Law

I write in praise of Jim Vellenga, my father-in-law.

I entered into a long-term relationship with Jim more than two decades ago when I decided to marry his daughter.

As far as I know, there is no real guide to forging a good relationship with your father-in-law. Despite the presence of the word “father,” your relationship with the man who raised you isn’t really analogous. The dynamic with a father-in-law is simpler and less fraught – there is no need to distinguish yourself from your father-in-law.  Nor do you feel implicated, at least not directly, by the behavior of your father-in-law.

Nonetheless, it can still be a tricky relationship to navigate.  As I started to get to know Jim, I thought a lot about my relationships with other male authority figures – coaches, teachers, bosses.  I began to sketch what I thought were the essential ingredients of a good father-in-law.  I came up with three:

1. Acceptance – First and foremost, it is important to be welcomed into the family with enthusiasm.
2. Difference – I was looking for a different perspective from my family of origin...but not too different. That is, I was hoping my father-in-law would broaden my thinking about the world but that his underlying values would be compatible with those of my parents.
3. Reliability – Finally, I wanted a reliable narrator, someone who could be trusted to look after my children, to offer meaningful advice, and to step up in times of crisis.

From day one, Jim has exceeded my fondest hopes in all of these areas and more besides.

What, you may be asking, are the essential elements of being a good son-in-law?  What was Jim looking for from me?  I have given less thought to this question.  Perhaps this is because I know the answer might not be flattering.

Jim has a natural head for numbers and business.  I avoid math wherever possible and have spent my entire professional life in the non-profit sector.  Brought up in South Dakota, Jim is an outdoorsman who loves to hunt and hike.  I am a city boy who refused to participate in target practice at summer camp because I didn’t want to touch a rifle.  Trained as an engineer, Jim can fix anything.  I only have one move when something breaks in my house – to pay someone to repair it for me.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Suffice to say that if Jim chose to look at me through a critical lens, he could find no shortage of faults.  But instead of judging me with a critical eye, Jim has always embraced me with a warm, open heart.  And for that, I will always be grateful.  I can’t imagine a better father-in-law.

I write all of this now because Jim has fallen ill and, despite my fervent wishes to the contrary, there is very little I can do to help him.  So I write this just to express my love and regard.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Design Like You Give A Damn

"Design Like You Give A Damn" is the name of a book that came out a few years ago that featured, among other innovative public projects, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  "Design Like You Give A Damn" would also have been a good title for the conversation I participated in earlier today with a group of architects interested in rethinking how the justice system approaches design.

The participants in the meeting were full of good ideas about how to improve jails, courthouses, probation offices and other criminal justice settings. The group seemed to agree that before you can have good design, you have to have good clients (i.e. government agencies who are interested in more than simply replicating yesterday's facilities with better systems) and good process (to arrive at a shared programmatic vision to guide design).

Everyone in the room also seemed to agree that "environment cues behavior" as one architect put it. The implications of this for the criminal justice system are to create spaces that encourage (voluntary) law-abiding behavior and nudge participants (be they inmates, arrestees, victims, etc) toward participation in positive activities.

While the architects didn't use the language of procedural justice, they essentially were encouraging criminal justice agencies to create facilities that communicate respect to users not just through program but through design and signage as well.  This idea has animated all of the design projects that we have engaged in at the Center for Court Innovation.

As it happens, I talked a little bit about the intersection of design and procedural justice at the National Network for Safe Communities conference a few weeks ago -- see video link below around the 16 minute mark.

For anyone interested in more detail about how we have tried to approach these topics -- typically with a major assist from the architect Alta Indelman -- check out this breakdown of the Red Hook Community Justice Center that was published by the Rudy Bruner Foundation

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Revolutionary Idea

She works in a building called "the green monster."   She's been called "a warrior of procedural justice." Now I think you just have to call her a star.

It has been a big couple of weeks for Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  A couple of weeks ago, she was profiled in a great long read in the Guardian under the headline: "The simple idea that could transform US criminal justice."  And this morning she appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC talking about how she has implemented procedural justice in Newark's Municipal Court.

In just a few minutes on screen, Judge Pratt explains how to treat even difficult defendants with dignity and respect.  She also talks about how she has used essay assignments to help defendants accept accountability for their behavior and think outside of the four corners of their block.

This is must-see TV for criminal justice reformers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Love of Humanity

This week we said a reluctant farewell to Lucille Jackson, the project director of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, who is retiring after more than a decade of service.  Building on a foundation put in place by Carol Fisler, the project's lead planner and initial director, Lucille has helped the Brooklyn Mental Health Court achieve some remarkable results, including reducing re-offending by mentally-ill felony defendants.  (This recent article by Carol in the Judges Journal is worth a read for anyone who is interested in the latest research about the mental health court model.)

The Brooklyn Mental Health Court's impact on clients would not be possible without the active involvement of numerous people and agencies.  Lucille's farewell breakfast offered visible evidence of the collaborative spirit that she has been able to create and sustain within Kings County Supreme Court. Social workers, court officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others talked about Lucille's capacity for hard work, her ability to adapt to difficult situations, and her willingness to mentor staff.

Perhaps most powerfully, Lucille was toasted by the presiding judge of the Mental Health Court, Matthew D'Emic.  (Judge D'Emic is being honored this summer by the American Bar Association at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.)  Judge D'Emic spoke eloquently about Lucille being motivated by a profound "love of humanity."

I think Judge D'Emic got it spot on.  Lucille is someone with a seemingly bottomless well of empathy, an empathy that she displays not just in her dealings with clients but with her colleagues and her partners.  She has made a significant contribution to our organization, to the criminal justice system, and to the borough of Brooklyn.  We will miss her.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"This Is Not Okay"

I'm spending today and tomorrow at the National Network for Safe Communities conference at John Jay College.  For those who don't know the National Network, they are the organization that is seeking to reduce crime and repair public trust in justice through a series of related interventions (e.g. the drug market intervention and the group violence intervention) that bring law enforcement and community voices together to combat violence.

I'm not a formal member of the Network, but I consider myself a bit of a fellow traveler.  Certainly, the Center for Court Innovation shares the broad goals of the Network to reduce the use of incarceration and repair the damaged relationship between the justice system and communities, particularly communities of color. (And, it should be noted, we have helped to convene call-in meetings in Brownsville that are an adaptation of the group violence intervention.)

I wish that everyone who is worried about the current state of criminal justice in this country could have been at this morning's session at the conference.  They would have seen dozens of police chiefs, prosecutors, community leaders and academics grappling earnestly with both the history of our country (particularly the legacy of racism) and the need for immediate and urgent action in crime-plagued communities. A few highlights from some of the featured speakers:

Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College, said that "the heavy footprint of mass incarceration...casts a shadow over our democracy."

Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, said that faith in justice has been fractured in many places but "nowhere is fractured faith beyond repair."  She went on to assert that "fairness and effectiveness in enforcement of the law are not mutually exclusive."

David Kennedy, the director of the National Network, made the case that there are too many communities in the U.S. with unconscionably high rates of violence, incarceration, and distrust of law enforcement.  "This is not okay," Kennedy asserted, underlining the moral imperative for change.  He went on to say that "small steps can make a huge difference" when it comes to addressing these issues.

William Bratton, the police commissioner here in New York, called the current moment, "the most serious crisis" he has seen in his career in law enforcement.  According to Bratton, "public safety without public approval isn't public safety."  He stated that there are alternatives to enforcement that can change the behavior of offenders and would-be offenders.  Among other examples, he highlighted Project Reset, the initiative that we are helping the NYPD (and local prosecutors) pilot in Brownsville and Harlem as a way of diverting 16 and 17 year olds who have committed minor offenses from formal court processing.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Snapshots of Brownsville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Delayed Gratification

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

601 Tully

I made a quick trip to Syracuse earlier this week for the opening of the Near Westside Peacemaking Project.

Building on the model of a similar program that we created in Red Hook, Brooklyn a couple of years ago, the Near Westside project seeks to resolve conflicts by adapting a Native American tradition to local problems.  Local volunteers are trained to serve as "peacemakers" by Native American practitioners.  The basic idea is to take a restorative justice approach to conflict, bringing together affected parties for multiple conversations that will hopefully yield a consensus about how to address the problem and move forward.  Peacemaking is a particularly good fit for messy problems involving multiple participants who must continue to interact on an ongoing basis.

Our hope is that the peacemaking project, which will handle referrals from the justice system, schools and neighborhood groups, will play a role in the continued revitalization of the Near Westside neighborhood, which has struggled with crime and poverty for many years.  The project is located in the heart of the community at 601 Tully Street, at an intersection that also features a school, a park and a church.

The peacemaking project has already successfully resolved one complicated dispute involving local school children and their families.  Another three conflicts are in the process of being addressed.  Also encouraging is the amount of good will the program has engendered in the community.  Dozens of local residents came out to celebrate the launch of the program, including many of the volunteer peacemakers.  Also on hand were the chief of police and representatives from the local housing authority, district attorney's office, and parole department.  It was a visible reminder of one of my favorite qualities of the Center for Court Innovation: when we are at our best, we are capable of serving as an interstitial link between government and the communities that government needs to do a better job of serving.

Speaking of links, it has been awhile since I unburdened myself of my opinions on a range of cultural topics.  Here are some quick takes:

The Engineer's Lament -- I think this is the best piece that Malcolm Gladwell has written for The New Yorker in some time.  I particularly liked his emphasis on the role our professional training plays in explaining our perspectives of the world.  (My lack of graduate education has certainly helped shape how I think.)

Montage of Heck -- While I didn't love HBO's overstuffed Kurt Cobain documentary, it did encourage me to play my Nirvana CDs for the first time in awhile.  I think I may be coming to the conclusion that Kurt Cobain was overrated but Nirvana was underrated, if that makes any sense.

The Memory Chalet -- I was initially tipped off to Nirvana in the early '90s by my friend John, whose tastes don't always overlap with mine, but whose recommendations I always take seriously.  As it happens, I am currently reading a book that John gave me: The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt.  The book collects some of the final writings by historian Tony Judt, who remained a productive writer till the end of his life despite contracting Lou Gehrig's disease.  It is the first book I've read by Judt, who I now add to the long list of authors who I wish I could write as well as.

Bill Simmons/ESPN Kerfuffle -- I'm a big believer in the importance of building small pleasures into one's daily routine.  The end of the Colbert Report was a big loss for me on this front -- I found the show's absurd humor helped sustain me.  This week has brought more bad news with the abrupt departure of Bill Simmons from Grantland and ESPN.  Simmons' columns and podcasts were something I looked forward to on a weekly basis.  If it is true, as rumored, that his departure was driven by ESPN's concerns about his criticisms of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, it is yet another reason for me to loathe the league.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I'm Still Free"

Another day, another great Center for Court Innovation event, this time in upper Manhattan as the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest cohort of graduates from its reentry court. More than 41 parolees were honored for having completed the nine month program.

I'm afraid I have written about these events on quite a few occasions so I apologize for the repetition, but this evening was another inspiring affair.  As always, I was struck by the mutual respect, gratitude and warmth between the graduates and their parole officers -- pretty much the opposite of what many people might expect the relationship between parolee and parole officer to look like.

The graduates were asked to say a few words as they accepted their certificates.  Part of the joy of these graduations is to see how each parolee reacts to this assignment.  Some are reticent.  Some make jokes.  Some speak directly to their fellow parolees.  Some speak to the rest of the audience.  And some are natural speechmakers who light up in front of the microphone.

Despite the diverse personalities of the individual parolees, their remarks tend to cluster around a few key themes -- their lives before prison, the challenges of reentry, the impact of the reentry court.  Here are a few sample quotations I jotted down from various speakers:

"I came home with nothing"

"I thought the world was against me."

"When I came here I was broken down.  I didn't want this program."

"I've been bumped and bruised."

"I've come a long ways.  I was in prison for 22 years.  The first week I came to the program I had a job...I still have a job."

"I want to thank my parole officer for treating me like a regular human being."

"Without my parole officers, I would have gone back."

"Thanks for not giving up on me."

"I'm still free."