Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cathy Potler

One of the things I like best about my job is that I get a chance to interact with dozens of public officials who put the lie to negative stereotypes about government workers.  Cathy Potler, the executive director of the New York City Board of Correction who passed away recently, was one such person.  Hard-working, thoughtful, energetic...Cathy embodied the ethic of government service.

I got to know Cathy through my service on the New York City Board of Correction.   Cathy shepherded me around Rikers Island several times over the past couple of years.  I always learned a lot from our conversations -- her knowledge of the facility was truly staggering.  Her knowledge was matched by her commitment to reform.  She was truly committed to helping New York City's jails live up to the highest possible standards -- and to advancing values like common sense, decency, and the rule of law.   She will be missed.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Still The Vision Lingers On

Last week I saw Billy Bragg in concert.  It might have been the fifth or sixth time I've seen him -- I can't remember for sure.  It was a memorable show since it happened to coincide with the referendum on Scottish independence, an issue that Bragg seemed to predict back in 2002 with "Take Down the Union Jack." The truth of the matter is that I've seen Billy Bragg perform in a variety of different political contexts -- on the eve of Obama's election, during John Major's reign as prime minister, etc. -- and he's always got something interesting to say.

From my perspective, there is much to admire about Billy Bragg's perseverance over the years.  Somehow, he has managed to simultaneously evolve while staying resolutely true to himself.

As is often the case with me, my thoughts about pop culture bleed into thoughts about work.

This week I also spent some time at the Midtown Community Court, now in its 21st year of operation.  The Midtown team seems nearly perfectly balanced to me -- a combination of old heads and new blood. The facility is undergoing a seemingly never-ending renovation at the moment.  While this poses all sorts of challenges for the staff, the quality of the work continues to impress.  Like Billy Bragg, Midtown is managing to stay true to its founding ideals while also continuing to innovate.

One example of this is the UPNEXT program which provides parenting skills and job training to non-custodial fathers, many of them with court involvement.  (One source of referrals for UPNEXT is our parent support program in Brooklyn.)  It is fair to say that the founders of the Midtown Community Court never dreamed of anything quite like UPNEXT.  But the program is entirely consistent with the  spirit of creative problem-solving that has animated Midtown since 1993.

Artwork created by UPNEXT participants is currently being featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  (For more on Midtown's partnership with MoMA, click here.)  Here are a few quick photos from the opening of the exhibit on Friday:

With a major assist from artist/educator Shellyne Rodriguez, UPNEXT participants created silhouettes inspired by the art of Kara Walker.

Jeff Hobbs, one of the original Midtown Community Court staffers, and me.

Bo Twiggs spoke eloquently about the partnership between Midtown and MoMA.

Wall text explaining the artwork.

More than a dozen staffers from the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation came to the exhibit, including three of the seven people who have served as Midtown project director.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Warrior of Procedural Justice

Tonight Victoria Pratt was sworn in as the chief judge of the Newark Municipal Court before several hundred people in downtown Newark.  I've admired Judge Pratt from the first time I saw her in action.  As part of our Newark Community Solutions project, she helps link low-level offenders in Newark to treatment and community service instead of fines and jail.  Judge Pratt is blessed with a courtroom presence that effortlessly communicates both compassion and respect for the law.  If procedural justice didn't exist, the idea would have had to be invented to describe what seems to come to her naturally.

The swearing-in ceremony had a distinctly Newark Community Solutions flavor.  It began with an invocation by Raul Hernandez, who oversees alternative sanctions for the project.  Nearly every speaker referenced Judge Pratt's leadership at Newark Community Solutions.  Mayor Ras Baraka spoke of how proud he is of the national and international visitors that come to see Newark Community Solutions in action.  Julien Neals, one of Judge Pratt's predecessors as chief judge, talked about how Newark Community Solutions was a "labor of love" for Pratt and that it demonstrated that "courts can be a place of construction."  He went on to predict that in the days to come, Pratt will spread the philosophy, energy and "positive action" of Newark Community Solutions to the rest of the courthouse.  Judge Fern Fisher from New York had perhaps my favorite line, labeling Judge Pratt a "warrior of procedural justice."  

It always nice to see good people and hard work rewarded.  Congrats to Judge Pratt and the rest of the Newark Community Solutions team.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Twenty Years

Today marks my 20th anniversary working at either the Center for Court Innovation or one of its associated programs.  The photo above isn't quite that old -- more like 16 or 17 years -- but it gives a sense of how young I was when I started working here.

I write a lot about the unique contribution that the Center for Court Innovation makes to the world. What I don't talk about so much is the impact that the organization has had on my life.  First and foremost, it has provided me with an institutional base as I have become a full-fledged adult.  Getting married, buying a house, having children -- I have been able to undertake all of these things (and more) thanks to an assist from the Center.  

More than this, the Center for Court Innovation has helped shape my personality and character.  I have had the honor of working alongside people of extraordinary talent and integrity for two decades. These include visionary thinkers, instinctive managers, effective communicators, amazing caregivers, relentless advocates, creative organizers and many, many others.  I have tried to incorporate the best of what I have learned into my life, both at home and at work.  

I've probably said more than enough already, but I did not want to let the occasion pass without acknowledging the huge debt I feel to my colleagues, both past and present. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Hand of a Government Man

Now that Lou Reed has passed away, I think the celebrity I see most often on the streets of New York is David Byrne.  This week alone I saw him twice -- once on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and once at a restaurant in Tribeca.

Talking Heads was a massively popular band when I was a teen (at least among my little socioeconomic cohort).  I used to joke that Little Creatures was issued to all freshmen at Wesleyan along with their dorm keys -- it felt like the album was on constant rotation back in 1985.

I liked the Talking Heads as much as the next guy, but if you had asked my 18-year-old self his opinion, he would have ranked them far below groups like the Clash and the Ramones and R.E.M. Fast forward to today and I listen to an awful lot of Talking Heads and very little of these other bands.  Why is this?

I think Talking Heads' music has aged exceptionally well.  Sometimes when I listen to Bruce Springsteen albums of that era (e.g. Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love) I wince at the cheesy synthesizers and dated production values.  This almost never happens with Talking Heads. Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues sound particularly fresh to me.

Both in terms of sound and words, there is something about Talking Heads that resonates with the particular moment that we are living through. Their embrace of African and Caribbean music certainly fits in with the mash-up musical culture of the moment.  More than this, there is a jittery anxiety about the band that speaks to the 24-7 nature of the wired world -- their best songs move fast and are larded with clever one liners ("facts all come with points of view"!) that stick in your mind long after the music ends.  All in all, the perfect soundtrack for my daily commute into Penn Station.

Notwithstanding my endorsement of the nervous propulsion of the Talking Heads, here's wishing you a restful and relaxing Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rethinking Youth Justice

Last week marked the final game of the season for Siegel’s Sluggers, the Center for Court Innovation's softball team named in honor of Alfred Siegel, our deputy director who passed away earlier this year.  While our team was narrowly defeated on the field, it accomplished its goal off the field. The team embodied Alfred Siegel’s gift of bringing people together.  All sections of our organization were represented on the team: research, technical assistance, operations, development, administration, etc. I have no doubt it would have brought a smile to Alfred’s face.  

Speaking of Alfred, we have created a small conference room in his honor, complete with a representative quotation on the wall: "You work in the system long enough, you see things that you think could be done better." I think the quote speaks to Alfred’s common sense, pragmatism, and modesty.

I'm sure these same qualities will be on display on October 8th at 6pm, when the New York City Bar hosts a panel in Alfred's honor.  Entitled Rethinking Youth Justice: A Panel Discussion on the Legacy of Alfred Siegel and the Future of Reform in New York, the panel will look both backwards and forwards, examining the work of Alfred's career and how he helped set the stage for future juvenile justice reform in New York.  The event is open to the public and will feature some of the great and the good whose lives intersected with Alfred, including Elizabeth Glazer from Mayor de Blasio's administration and Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance.  

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


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.