Thursday, October 16, 2014
This morning, the Manhattan Institute sponsored a briefing entitled, "20 Years of Broken Windows Policing: What's Ahead for Public Safety in New York City?" The panel featured NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Citizens Crime Commission Executive Director Richard Aborn, and former NY State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin.
In framing the conversation, moderator Errol Louis began by arguing that the public consensus about how to keep New York City safe is in the process of unraveling as broken windows policing has come under fire from the media, elected officials, and the advocacy community.
In response, Commissioner Bratton launched a spirited defense of broken windows policing, making the case that addressing "incivility" has not only been crucial to reducing crime in New York City over the past generation, but will continue to be a crucial tactic as the NYPD moves forward under his leadership. Bratton argued that, contrary to some impressions, New Yorkers are demanding quality-of-life enforcement from the police, pointing out that the vast majority of misdemeanor arrests in the city are the direct result of complaints made by local residents via 911 or 311 calls.
While Bratton and the other panelists all defended broken windows policing, they also acknowledged that this brand of enforcement needs to be done "constitutionally" and "consistently" across different parts of the city.
Vance called for community engagement with law enforcement, precinct-level diversion of minor cases out of the courts, and a significant investment in rethinking the handling of misdemeanor cases in general. In essence, Vance was making the same argument that we have made in advancing community courts: that a misdemeanor case is a window of opportunity, a moment to intervene meaningfully in an individual's life through the provision of services rather than jail sanctions.
Both Vance and Richard Aborn talked about decriminalizing certain kinds of minor misbehavior. In addition, Aborn talked about creating neighborhood panels that would engage local residents in resolving minor cases without a formal court hearing. Here again, Aborn was echoing the logic behind several Center for Court Innovation programs, including youth court and our peacemaking experiments.
At several points, the panelists pointed out that the reductions in crime in New York have been accompanied by significant reductions in the use of jail and prison. Michael Benjamin explicitly credited alternative-to-incarceration programs and drug courts with helping to achieve this result.
A number of the panelists also highlighted the need to enhance the legitimacy of the police, particularly in minority neighborhoods. This too has been an area of emphasis for the Center for Court Innovation.
Will the NYPD figure out a way to continue to reap the benefits of broken windows policing while addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised with its implementation? It will be fascinating to see how things unfold in the days to come.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Last night, the Center for Court Innovation was honored by Groundswell at their annual benefit. For those who haven't been, I recommend the event highly. Each year, Groundswell gets their friends to donate art for a live and silent auction. The result is an event that is one part gallery show, one part cocktail party, and one part educational seminar. The bottom line is that I learned a lot and had a great time doing so.
When it was my time to speak, I was asked the question: "Why does the Center for Court Innovation use art to engage young people?" This is what I said:
You know, whole books and entire careers have been devoted to trying to answer the question “why art”? I’m not sure in the 60 seconds I've been allotted here tonight that I have anything original to add to the mix. I will say that I believe (to paraphrase Leon Botstein) that the visual arts are not a luxury good but one of the vital signs by which we determine the health and vibrancy of our society. And I believe in the power of art to inspire and stimulate change at the neighborhood level, because I've seen it happen with my own two eyes.
But really, instead of answering “why art?” I want to answer a slightly different question: “why Groundswell?” Why of all the hundreds of wonderful organizations in NYC have we chosen to partner with Groundswell again and again in so many different locations?
The answer is simple: even though the Center for Court Innovation and Groundswell are very different organizations with very different cultures, we share some basic values. At our core, we both believe that young people, including kids who have been involved in the justice system, can be a tremendous force for good in New York. And we believe that if we tap into this force, we can help make our neighborhoods safer and stronger without sending more people to Rikers Island.
For the past two decades, we have been proving that this is possible in places like Red Hook and Brownsville and Crown Heights. Our partnership with Groundswell has been an important part of this story. What Groundswell brings to the table is something pretty magical. They bring a remarkable ability to engage even the most difficult-to-reach kids. And they bring an ability to transform symbols of disorder and despair into works of art and sources of community pride. That’s why we keep turning to Groundswell – because they deliver the goods again and again.
Friday, October 10, 2014
One of my college housemates, Anthony Innes Stephenson, passed away last week.
I met Tony my freshman year at Wesleyan. One of our first encounters was a game of one-on-one basketball. It was a classic male bonding/testing-each-other-out moment. It still pains me to admit this, but he absolutely smoked me -- I may not have scored a single basket. Tony possessed a quick first step and an accurate jumper that I was always late in trying to block. (Once I figured out that Tony was one of the rare right-handed players who preferred to shoot going to his left, I was at least able to keep up with him a bit.)
Over the years, I played countless hours of basketball with and against Tony. If you buy the argument that sports reveals character (and I do), what Tony's game said about him was this: he was a gentle soul. Unlike so many other playground warriors, Tony was not driven to dominate or impose his will on a game, although he most certainly had the talent to do so. He was a graceful and gracious athlete who I think appreciated the game more for its aesthetic qualities than for some of the other reasons that people typically gravitate towards sports (exercise, teamwork, competition, etc).
The other arena where Tony's personal qualities revealed themselves was his writing. Man, he was a good writer. At his best, he was a bit like Woody Allen: neurotic, self-deprecating, caustic, funny as hell. Digging back through his letters and emails, I can't help but smile at his capacity for mockery. Although he took aim at everyone and everything in sight (including, it must be said, himself), Tony's jibes never felt mean-spirited to me. He didn't seek to hurt or humiliate, just to expose pretensions and communicate insights through humor. I can't speak for others, but I certainly learned things by seeing myself reflected through Tony's prose.
In the years since we graduated from college, I have seen Tony infrequently -- he rarely traveled outside of his beloved San Francisco. I saw him last six months ago. His hair may have been grey but he had the same boyish grin and mischievous perspective on the world. We had dinner in Chinatown and talked for a couple of hours about the usual stuff: basketball, family, politics, mutual friends and acquaintances. When I left, I made a mental note to myself that I wanted to correspond with him more frequently, that I needed more of Tony's (authorial) voice in my life. I am sad that I won't get this chance.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Last night the New York City Bar hosted a panel honoring the late Alfred Siegel and his legacy of advancing youth justice reform. It was a lovely event. Dozens of Alfred's friends, family members, work colleagues and partners came out to celebrate Alfred's many contributions to advancing the cause of justice in New York. Happily, they were joined by a number of people who had never met Alfred but who were just interested in learning more about the man who served as a powerful moral compass for just about everyone who knew him. I think they left with a full portrait of a man who managed to do a lot of good in the world.
While there were many poignant moments, they were balanced both by moments of levity and by discussion of a set of concrete Family Court and Criminal Court reforms that Alfred helped realize. I loved hearing from Alfred's two sons, both of whom exhibit so many of the qualities that I loved in Alfred: poise, self-deprecation, decency. Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance captured Alfred's sense of humor and his unique ability to get things done. Adam Mansky, who moderated the panel, captured him best when he said:
Alfred was not an outside agitator, standing apart from the system; nor was he paralyzed by its injustices. Rather, he continually engaged the justice system in the process of change and improvement, using every trick in the book to push his shoulder against the yoke of bureaucratic inertia, business as usual, fear of change and petty politics; and in doing so, improved the lives of young people and their families, as well as adults caught up in the system.
At the Center for Court Innovation, we've created a special scholarship fund in Alfred's memory which will help defray tuition expenses for a current or prospective student at John Jay College. For more information, click here.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Yesterday, New York City's Criminal Justice Agency held a special luncheon at John Jay College to celebrate dozens of employees who had been with the agency for more than 25 years (including the agency's director, Jerry McElroy).
For those that don't know, CJA is New York City's pretrial agency (I sit on their board). They conduct pre-arraignment interviews with criminal defendants in order to provide a recommendation to judges about the likelihood that a defendant will return to court. In this way, CJA has facilitated the release of hundreds of thousands of defendants over the years and helped reduce the number of New Yorkers who are held on Rikers Island.
In addition to performing this vital function, CJA also operates two supervised release programs for felony defendants (one in Queens, the other in Manhattan) and conducts original research at the behest of criminal justice officials.
My first encounter with CJA happened some 20 years ago during the early planning for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. When we wanted to make a case to funders or elected officials for why a new response to misdemeanor crime was needed in southwest Brooklyn, we relied on data generously and comprehensively supplied by CJA. (Special thanks to Frank Sergi at CJA, who was enormously patient in coaching me through the statistics. Special thanks as well to Peter Kiers, pictured above, who has always known that I was in the pretrial business even when I didn't realize it myself.)
The highlight of yesterday's event for me were the speeches by two of CJA's "founding fathers" -- Herb Sturz and Jeremy Travis. Both talked about CJA's rich history and how the agency grew from a small pilot project based in Manhattan and operated by the Vera Institute of Justice into a citywide organization with hundreds of employees. (For anyone interested in CJA's history, including the role played by the Son of Sam, I encourage you to check out Malcolm Feeley's excellent Court Reform on Trial from Quid Pro Books.)
Several of the speakers yesterday made the point that we are living through the most exciting moment for the pretrial field since the Bail Reform Act on 1964. Risk and needs assessment, more informed decision making, and reducing the use of detention are hot issues at the moment in the world of criminal justice. I am hoping that CJA (and the Center for Court Innovation, to be honest) have a big role to play in advancing these ideas in the not-too-distant future, both here in New York and around the country.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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
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
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
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
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.