Friday, February 12, 2016

"We Will Pull No Punches"


Yesterday, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito delivered her annual state of the city address in the Bronx.  The big news is that Mark-Viverito has launched an independent commission, to be chaired by former NY State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, to create a new "blueprint for justice for New York City."  Specifically, Mark-Vierito charged the Commission with reducing pre-trial detention, "utilizing more community courts," and getting the population of Rikers Island "to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality."

To state the obvious, this is an ambitious agenda.  But I can think of no one more equipped to take this on than Judge Lippman.  "We will pull no punches," Lippman told reporters yesterday. "We will look at Rikers like it's never been looked at before, and with no preconceptions. It's important that the criminal justice system be viewed as fair and that crime and punishment is done the way it should be."

The Center for Court Innovation will help support the work of the Lippman Commission by providing research and strategic advice.  Here is my quote from the City Council press release:
“New York City has made real progress in recent days toward reducing the use of jail and bolstering the legitimacy of the justice system. The Commission created by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and chaired by Jonathan Lippman has the potential to take this work to the next level, advancing a new vision of justice that emphasizes community-based alternatives to incarceration and treating individual defendants and victims with dignity and respect. The results achieved by projects like the Red Hook Community Justice Center suggest that this approach can help reduce crime and improve public trust in justice. At the Center for Court Innovation, we applaud the Speaker's leadership and look forward to supporting the efforts of the Commission in any way we can.”
Will this Commission lead to fundamental change of the justice system in New York City?  To be honest, the obstacles will be enormous -- political, financial, logistical, etc.  But it is worth pausing at least for today to appreciate that one of the most powerful elected officials in the City has put her weight behind reducing incarceration and advancing community justice.  No small thing.  

Some press coverage:






Saturday, January 23, 2016

Victims and Jail Reduction


This week, with an assist from the MacArthur Foundation's Safety+Justice Challenge and the law firm of Mayer Brown, we convened a national roundtable to discuss the relationship between the victims movement and current efforts to reduce jail populations across the U.S.  Participants included a mix of policymakers and practitioners, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim advocates, and police officials from across the country (New York, Texas, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky,  California, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia).

While the conversation was wide-ranging, it focused mostly on pre-trial supervised release programs and victims of domestic violence.  The Center for Court Innovation has a foot in both of these camps:  we are deeply engaged in reducing the use of pre-trial detention -- and in figuring out better ways to ensure the safety of victims of domestic violence.

From my perspective, there were two principal themes to the conversation.  To quote one of the participants in the roundtable, I would summarize the first theme as "This is the time." There was a palpable sense in the room that we are living through a unique moment of possibility, a time of real momentum for criminal justice reform in general, and jail reduction in particular.

To quote another participant, my second theme of the day was: "It's complicated." The roundtable highlighted a number of tensions that advocates of jail reduction will need to navigate in the days ahead if they hope to improve safety and win community support.

One obvious tension is the potential conflict between protecting the safety of victims and protecting the constitutional rights of the accused.  There was a significant amount of conversation about the necessity/desirability of attaching conditions of release to participants in supervised release programs who have been accused of domestic violence offenses.

Another topic that generated some debate was the use of risk assessment instruments -- How accurate are they?  What can an actuarial analysis tell us about any single defendant?  Are pretrial service agencies screening for lethality when there is a targeted victim?  How well do risk tools take into account the historic oppression of racial and ethnic groups in the United States?

The challenges of race and gender and sexual orientation/identity came up in numerous ways over the course of the day-long conversation.  Some participants underlined a concern that black communities in particular have a long history of being over-policed and over-criminalized in the U.S.  At the same time, there was an acknowledgement that these same communities have been under-protected from the threat of victimization.

The roundtable did not come to any concrete conclusions about how to address these challenges.  But we didn't expect it to.  At the risk of being a cockeyed optimist, I thought it was a valuable exercise to surface these issues in a trusting, supportive environment.  Indeed, several participants expressed a desire to continue the conversation when they returned to their hometowns.  I came away from the day feeling that there is a real appetite among jail reformers to figure out new ways to include victim voices, perspectives and concerns in creating and strengthening supervised release programs.  Now we just have to figure out how to give them the tools and support they need.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Judith Kaye (1938-2016)


I've written about Judith S. Kaye a lot on this blog.  There's a good reason for that: the Center for Court Innovation would not exist but for her support and advocacy.

Back in 1996, it was not exactly a slam dunk that a new organization devoted to promoting justice reform, with a special focus on working with the New York court system, would succeed.  Judge Kaye's endorsement -- and her willingness to invest in us -- was really what made the idea work.

I'm not 100 percent certain why Judge Kaye chose to make this leap.  Certainly one of the reasons was her faith in John Feinblatt, our founding director.  But, in general, the willingness to take (calculated) risks was one of Judge Kaye's hallmarks.  In a conservative profession (with a small "c"), she stood out for her intellectual curiosity, her sometimes subversive humor, and, most of all, her sustained appetite for reform.

In the process, Kaye left a mark not just on New York, but on the world.  She was willing to use her bully pulpit to advance a broad array of causes -- reforming the jury process, rethinking the approach to domestic violence cases, and forging a new response to addiction, to name just a few.  Many states around the country answered her call and adapted her ideas.  Along the way, she helped define the field of problem-solving justice -- if I am not mistaken, her editorial in Newsweek ("Making the Case for Hands-On Courts") was the first mainstream use of the expression.

I am just scratching the surface of Kaye's accomplishments because I know that the Internet will fill in the rest for anyone who is interested.  But I cannot close without acknowledging my huge personal debt to her. When John Feinblatt left the Center back in 2001, Judge Kaye was willing to take another big chance, this time on me.  In blessing my appointment as director, she was placing her bet on a young and untested leader at a vulnerable moment in the agency's history.  Having made this decision, she was unfailing in her support of me over the years -- offering advice, making useful connections, and championing the Center whenever she got a chance.  My last two interactions with Kaye were typical: she sent me an email congratulating me on a recent article about the Brownsville Youth Court (youth courts were a particular area of interest for her) and she made a generous personal donation to support our work.

I will miss her.

PS, I just came across New York City councilman Rory Lancman's statement about Kaye, which includes a nice mention of the Center for Court Innovation:
Judge Judith Kaye was a trailblazer as Chief Judge, who never stopped blazing trails even after she left the court. She pushed New York forward on specialized courts for drug addiction, mental health and domestic violence, and instituted historic reforms making jury service fairer and more efficient. The Center for Court Innovation, established on her watch, is the envy of judicial systems across the country and at the vanguard of today’s effort to reform our country’s justice system. In her retirement, Judge Kaye was a fierce advocate for ending the school-to-prison pipeline and continued to impact our judiciary as Chair of the Commission on Judicial Nomination. Her passing is a tremendous loss for our state.
And the New York Times obituary mentions the Midtown Community Court prominently:
As an administrator as well as a judge — “each of these jobs took 80 percent of my time,” she said — she was instrumental in the creation of courts devoted to specific problems, like drug abuse, as well as locally focused courts, including the Midtown Community Court in Times Square, which has dealt with panhandling, prostitution and other neighborhood issues.
And here is former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's statement:

Judith Kaye was not only the longest serving Chief Judge in New York State history, and not only the first woman to hold the post; she was also one of the most respected judicial innovators of our time. Her early and strong support for problem-solving courts, such as the Midtown Community Court that helped clean up Times Square, played an important role in making New York a national leader in reducing crime and recidivism. I was lucky to call her a friend, and the city and state will benefit from her leadership for decades to come.      
And here is John Jay College President Jeremy Travis:
We pay tribute to Judge Kaye’s clear-eyed and elegant judicial opinions in which she cut back on the death penalty, supported gender equality and promoted juvenile justice. We applaud her leadership in creating a national movement supporting problem-solving courts.  In fact, the Center for Court Innovation, which she launched as a vehicle for these courts, in now a significant employer of John Jay alumni and students who are attracted to this vision of justice.   


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lippman's Legacy


Tomorrow's New York Times includes a feature by Jim McKinley entitled "New York's Chief Judge Leaving a Legacy of Reforms Inspired by Social Justice." The piece (which includes a bit about Legal Hand, our new network of community-based legal information centers) is a fitting tribute to Jonathan Lippman as he retires from the bench.

I have been fortunate to work with Judge Lippman for quite some time, dating back to his days as chief administrative judge under Judith S. Kaye.  We discussed some of our joint history in a public conversation at the Center for Court Innovation earlier this year -- check out Moving the Mountains for excerpts.

I will leave it to others to summarize Lippman's legacy (in addition to the Times piece, the New York Law Journal is also running a major retrospective.)  Like others who have worked with Lippman, I can attest to his prodigious work ethic, his commitment to justice reform, and his fundamental decency.  I particularly admire his ability to see the big picture and master operational details -- two qualities that rarely go together in my experience. The photo above (which also features New York City councilman Rory Lancman) captures another one of Lippman's signatures -- his gift for interpersonal communication.

But beyond testifying to his talents as a reformer and administrator, what I mostly want to express in this space is my gratitude.  Over the years, Lippman has been an important supporter of the Center for Court Innovation.  He has turned to us to help implement some of his signature programs, including adolescent diversion and human trafficking initiatives.  And his endorsement has been crucial to helping us advance some of our most important ideas, including our efforts to reform the bail system and create a community justice center in Brownsville.

I would say that the field of justice reform is going to miss Judge Lippman, but I expect that he will be just as vocal in the years to come as a private citizen as he has been as a jurist.





Thursday, December 17, 2015

Long Time No Blog


Apologies for my silence of late -- the end of the year has been a busy time for me both at work and at home, including a fair amount of travel and a bat mitzvah celebration for my youngest daughter.  A few quick hits before 2015 comes to a close:

This is the season of giving, so I thought I'd highlight a few of the criminal justice organizations that I have chosen to support this year.  These include the Vera Institute of Justice (which just released a nifty tool for tracking the growth in jail populations across the United States), the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (my alma mater's effort to provide a liberal arts education to inmates in Connecticut prisons), LIFT (an agency co-founded by my friend Liberty Aldrich that provides information to litigants in NYC Family Court), the New Press (which has publishes a range of interesting books on criminal justice, among other topics), and, of course, the Center for Court Innovation (the agency that has been my home for the past two decades). 

Here's wishing you a happy and healthy new year. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Answer Is Love


Earlier this week, there was a shooting down the street from our headquarters on 8th Avenue.  The details are murky, but press reports suggest that the incident, which left one dead and two injured, was drug-related and that everyone involved had a history of addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system.

I have been thinking about this shooting a lot – and not just because I walk past the site of the violence every morning on my way to work.  

A few days ago, I took a couple of foundation executives to tour the Midtown Community Court.  It was a great visit, highlighted by a conversation with a client in Midtown’s fatherhood program who had originally come to the Court as a defendant.  In the course of detailing his efforts to achieve sobriety, Daniel said that if it wasn’t for the Midtown Community Court, he would be dead.

At the risk of appearing insensitive, I usually dismiss this kind of language.  It is not uncommon for clients to make over-the-top rhetorical gestures.  But this time, it stopped me cold.  It may have been because of the earnest way the line was delivered.  Or maybe it was Daniel’s facial scarring, which spoke of a life lived on the edge.

In any case, it was a powerful reminder of the importance of the work that is being done on the ground every day by our case managers, outreach workers, violence interrupters, social workers and youth workers in places like Red Hook, Brownsville, Harlem, Crown Heights, Newark, and the South Bronx.  They are literally in the business of saving lives.

How do they do it?  According to Daniel, the client at Midtown, the answer is love.  He talked about his relationship with his case manager, and the care she had shown him, even when he relapsed or failed to show up for court appearances. 

Daniel also talked about the importance of small gestures.  In his case, the purchase of a meal at McDonalds when he was at a low moment was a sign of the program’s love and respect – a love and respect that he has attempted to reciprocate by meeting his obligations to the court.  The drug treatment and the job training and the judicial monitoring were important to Daniel, but they might have gone for nought if they were not accompanied by the feeling that his case manager truly cared for him.

Daniel’s story isn’t over yet, of course.  Staying clean will be a lifetime struggle.  And he still needs to find long-term employment.  But Daniel has reconnected with his daughter and is attempting to be a good father. 


As depressing at it is to contemplate the life trajectories of the men involved in the Midtown shooting earlier this week, Daniel’s example gives me hope that – with the right combination of programming and accountability and, yes, love -- these trajectories can be altered.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Celebrating Red Hook


This past Monday, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Red Hook Community Justice Center with a benefit at the Brooklyn Museum.  More than 200 people showed up to see us honor New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Cravath Swaine & Moore partner Stuart Gold, and former client Pauline Nevins.  Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson gave a particularly good speech, highlighting Red Hook's importance as an international model of fairness and making a strong case for a community justice center in Brownsville.  (For a full report on the event, click here.)

As much as I enjoyed the various speakers, my favorite part of the evening was seeing so many friends and former colleagues come out to support the Center.  The party had a little bit of a reunion vibe.  Given this, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite photos, courtesy of our ace photographer, Gene Sorkin.


This is a shot of me with Ife Charles (who works on gun violence prevention programs at the Center for Court Innovation) and Errol Louis of NY1 who served as the MC for the event.


Here is Red Hook's presiding judge, Alex Calabrese, with Pauline Nevins.


Toni Bullock-Stallings recently retired after serving as chief clerk in Red Hook for many years, but she came back to celebrate with us.  That's her on the right.  On the left is Sabrina Carter, a Red Hook resident who first entered our orbit when she served as a member of the Red Hook youth court.  She is now the coordinator of youth programs at the Justice Center.


City council member Rory Lancman (on the left) has been a vocal advocate of justice reform in New York City.  We have been talking with him about studying the feasibility of a community justice center in Queens.  On the right is Wally Bazemore, a community activist from Red Hook.  I met Wally back in the bad old days when Red Hook was overrun by drugs.  He was involved in a group called the Mad Dads of Red Hook.  He has been an important supporter of the Justice Center, including volunteering for Red Hook's peacemaking program.


Pauline Nevins was the evening's final speaker.  She talked movingly about her struggle with addiction and the role that the Justice Center (and Judge Calabrese in particular) has played in helping her get her life back on track. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Not Just Another Docket Number


The past twelve months or so have been a time of great ferment here at the Center for Court Innovation.  We have launched a number of significant new programs, including Poverty Justice Solutions.  Alongside the MacArthur Foundation and an array of other partners, we have embarked on a national effort to reduce the use of local jail.  And we have made an institutional commitment to help promote bail reform in New York.

One of the most exciting new developments at the Center is actually one of the simplest (at least conceptually).  The Center got its start creating alternatives to incarceration at the sentencing phase of the criminal justice process.  We worked with justice agencies to create meaningful alternatives so that judges wouldn't have to default to jail or prison as a response to misdemeanor crime or addicted offenders or mentally-ill felons.

In recent months, we have attempted to bring similar kinds of programming (community restitution projects, links to social services) to key junctures earlier in the criminal justice process.  One particular area of emphasis is pre-court diversion.  Our goal here is to provide legally-proportionate responses to minor offending so that teens can avoid formal case processing and all of the attendant collateral consequences that go along with it (including the potential to receive a criminal record).

With the help of the New York Police Department and the District Attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we have launched an initiative known as Project Reset.  With initial pilots in Brownsville and Harlem, Project Reset provides 16- and 17-year-olds who have been apprehended for offenses like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession with a path out of the justice system.  If they successfully complete a short, two-session intervention, participants never have to go to court.  As a result, they walk away with no criminal record -- and no chance of landing in jail.

Project Reset is still in its infancy, but we have already seen enough to suggest that it is worth looking to expand the program beyond its pilot sites.

One of the crucial building blocks for Project Reset has been the youth courts that we operate in Harlem and Brownsville. These projects are training local teens to offer a restorative response to low-level offenses committed by their peers.  Fusion TV  recently documented the experience of Faith, a Brownsville teenager who went through the youth court.  There was much to like about the piece, but my favorite line was when Faith said: "It feels good that I got a second chance and to have actually learned from it."  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Expressing With My Full Capabilities


I spent the Labor Day holiday immersed in hip-hop and history, going to see Hamilton on Broadway and Straight Outta Compton at the cineplex.

In many ways, the most remarkable thing about these two cultural products is the simple fact that they exist.  It is fair to say that neither a hip-hop musical nor a feature-length bio-pic about a rap group that recorded only a single good album would have been conceivable when I was first introduced to hip hop at a basketball camp in Washington DC back in the summer of 1984.

I had heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash some time earlier.  As good as that song was (and is), I dismissed it as a one-off, a gimmick.  Then, on the bus ride to camp one day, I heard "It's Like That" by Run-DMC.  It was, as Large Professor would say, "rebel music," and as such, it resonated with my teenage anti-authority impulses.

With the benefit of hindsight, the 1980s was not the best of times to be a teenager -- AIDS, crack cocaine, an explosion of gun violence, disinvestment in cities, etc.  But I will always be grateful that I got to experience the "golden age of hip-hip" as it unfolded.  It seemed like every month, a different artist was releasing ground-breaking work -- the Jungle Brothers, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and many others.

I have written a fair amount about my love of hip-hop.  I don't want to over-sell it, but there is no doubt that hip-hop has had an influence on my professional life.  Thanks to hip-hop (and an unsolicited editorial I wrote about Eazy-E), I got a chance to freelance at the Providence Journal in my early 20s.  And while there is no obvious connection between hip-hop and the Center for Court Innovation, I like to think that I bring some of the creativity, humor, and DIY spirit of the music to my daily work.

These qualities are manifest in abundance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which really is as good as everyone says it is.  In an odd way, I found the musical about our founding fathers closer in spirit to what drew me to hip-hop than the film about N.W.A.  The Straight Outta Compton movie makes a half-hearted effort to claim that N.W.A were "journalists" reporting on the reality of life on the streets of Los Angeles.  For a time, it was possible to listen to Public Enemy and imagine that you were tuned into "CNN for black people," as Chuck D famously said.  But not N.W.A.  Once you got past a handful of powerful anti-police songs, N.W.A. spent most of their time engaging in macho posturing and adolescent sex fantasies.  And that comes across in the film, which, like the music it depicts, often feels cynical and mercenary.

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.