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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Food for the Soul

I've written about the Sloan Public Service Awards several times in the past, so I won't wax rhapsodic here, but I could not let the annual awarding of these prizes to exemplary New York City officials pass without some comment.  This year was the final year of my three-year term on the selection committee, which is organized by the Fund for the City of New York under the leadership of Mary McCormick.  Each year, the process culminates in a day-long bus trip to the work places of the winners along with a ceremony at Cooper Union with the Mayor.

Anyone who has ever read an upsetting story in the paper about government waste or corruption or incompetence would be well-advised to attend the ceremony.  There is so much good work being done across this vast city by civil servants that goes underreported.  This year's winners of the Sloan Awards exemplify this reality.  When I was a teen, Ronald Reagan famously said that "government isn't the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  Anyone who still believes this should  read the stories of the Sloan Public Service Award winners.  Kudos to them all.

Friday, May 30, 2014

On Being a Mensch

Yesterday's presentation of the Kathryn McDonald Award at the New York City Bar was a bittersweet affair.  It was a chance to celebrate the many contributions that Alfred Siegel made to improving justice in New York.  But it was also a stark reminder of all that we have lost with Alfred's passing.  He really was a special man.  Irreplaceable. 

This point was made emphatically by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in his introduction of Alfred.  Judge Lippman spoke warmly of his decades-long relationship with Alfred.  He also talked about being in meetings and seeing everyone turn to Alfred for help in understanding confusing situations.  

I have had the same experience on more occasions than I can remember.  This was a point I tried to make in accepting the McDonald Award on Alfred's behalf.  This is what I said:

I miss Alfred every day, but I’m especially missing him today.  I would have loved to have seen his discomfort with being the center of attention.  I also know that he would have had something funny and gracious and self-deprecating to say as he accepted this honor. 

Although he would no doubt have tried to deflect attention from himself, there is also no doubt that this award would have meant a lot to Alfred, particularly given how much he admired Judge Lippman and how much he cared about improving the Family Court and the way that New York City works with delinquent young people.

I’ve talked and written a lot about Alfred since he passed away, trying to process my grief and express what was remarkable about his life.   He had so many wonderful qualities, including a keen intelligence, a sharp wit, and a deep understanding of how this City functions and how to get stuff done amidst chaos and conflicting interests. 

But when I think about Alfred, the first thing that always pops into my head is a Yiddish word.  Because Alfred was first and foremost a mensch. 

Being a mensch meant that Alfred took enormous care with personal relationships.  He was a steadfast friend, father, and colleague.  Unlike many men of his generation who struggle to express such things, Alfred communicated love and warmth easily.  He was well and truly loved in return. 
Alfred’s brand of menschness (if that’s a word) meant that he was a good guy to deal with – he was an honest broker and a reliable narrator.  But Alfred’s integrity was also at the root of his effectiveness as a justice reformer. 

Over the years, Alfred served as a moral compass for hundreds and hundreds of people.  Elected officials, commissioners, even chief judges looked to Alfred for advice because they knew that he saw clearly the right thing to do in almost any situation.  He was no ideologue.  What he was was a true democrat (with a lower case “D”).  He had a rigorous insistence that everyone – regardless of their station in life -- deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.  This was his lodestar. And this is the value that we at the Center for Court Innovation are trying to carry forward in his absence. 

We are doing this in ways both big and small, from the manner in which we strive to interact with our institutional partners to the projects we are trying to advance, including a justice center in Brownsville that was a particular passion of Alfred’s and that will attempt to forge a new approach to young adults in the justice system. 

With the help of Jeremy Travis and John Jay College, we have also created a scholarship fund in Alfred’s honor.  Each year, we will help defray tuition costs for a student who is interested in a career in criminal justice and who has overcome significant challenges on the path to higher education.  Anyone who wants to learn more should check out our website.

On behalf of the Center for Court Innovation and Alfred’s family -- his wife Nancy and his sons Danny and Larry couldn’t be here today because they are on vacation in Italy – I want to thank the City Bar for this wonderful recognition of a truly wonderful mensch. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Report from Wesleyan

I'm just back from my 25th college reunion at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Despite an ominous forecast, the weather mostly cooperated, allowing me to spend several hours on Foss Hill soaking up the sun and chatting with old friends on Saturday.  

Although reunions tend to leave a melancholy aftertaste (the inevitable focus on the aging process and the comparisons to one's younger self can take a toll on me), I had a good time.  A huge part of my enjoyment was down to my connection to the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, a remarkable program created by Wesleyan undergrads five years ago.   Built on the model of the Bard Prison Initiative, the program seeks to provide a Wesleyan education to selected inmates at two Connecticut prisons (one for men, one for women).  

I'm proud that my alma mater is the kind of place that encourages students to exercise their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to make a difference in the world.  I'm also proud that Wesleyan is a place that puts its money where its mouth is.  Wesleyan believes so fiercely in the power and importance of a liberal arts education that it is attempting to provide this precious resource not just to the children of the elite, but to everyone across the board, including those who society typically forgets or ignores.  

My sense from visiting the classes in prison is that the education that Wesleyan is providing is changing the way that inmates think about themselves and the world.  The next challenge is to document that this translates into changed behavior and a changed culture within our penal institutions.  I'm optimistic that over time it will.

The Center for Prison Education was a big part of reunion weekend.  One of my fellow board members, Ted Shaw, was selected to speak at commencement.   In addition, the program put together a panel that featured a range of interesting panelists, including speakers from the Brownsville Community Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice.  To keep up with what the Center for Prison Education is up to, follow their great Twitter feed.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Near Westside Peacemaking

Yesterday, I spent a lovely spring day in Syracuse touring the Near Westside neighborhood. Only a short walk from downtown, the Near Westside is a community with a reputation for poverty and crime.  It is also a place of rebirth.  In recent years, Syracuse University has made a significant local investment through vehicles like the Near Westside Initiative and UPSTATE.  Amidst vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, there are abundant signs of life in the Near Westside -- beautiful parks, public art, and new development.

I am hoping that in the months to come, the Center for Court Innovation will make a significant contribution to progress on the Near Westside.  With a wide array of partners, we are in the process of planning a peacemaking project in the neighborhood.  The project grows out of our Tribal Justice Exchange, which seeks to encourage the sharing of ideas between tribal justice systems and state courts. One focus of this work has been encouraging local justice systems to adapt peacemaking practices pioneered by Native Americans. We've already got one such adaptation up and running in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Now, with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we are attempting to bring the model to Syracuse.

There's lots of work still to be done (among other things, we need to hire staff, find a location, finalize caseload, etc), but I left Syracuse feeling excited about the possibilities. Syracuse is a very different place than New York City, but the Near Westside reminded me a lot of neighborhoods where the Center for Court Innovation has done work in the past -- places like Crown Heights and Red Hook and Brownsville. I'm hoping that we will have a similar impact in Syracuse as we have in these other neighborhoods.