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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Kathryn McDonald Award

I'm pleased to report that the venerable New York City Bar Association has decided to honor the late Alfred Siegel with the 2014 Kathryn McDonald Award for his contributions to New York City Family Court.   While it is a source of great sadness that Alfred won't be there to accept the award from New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman when it is presented on May 29th, I am pleased that the City Bar has chosen to recognize one of New York's unsung heroes.

As I said recently at the international summit on community justice that we helped put together in San Francisco, Alfred's public presentation didn't exactly scream out "innovator."  He didn't dress like an Internet entrepreneur. And he wasn't cursed with the smartest-guy-in-the-room syndrome.  He didn't feel the need to beat you over the head with his intelligence.  But appearances can be deceiving.  Because beneath his conventional exterior, Alfred was a relentless reformer, driven to tinker and tweak and make things better.  He's richly deserving of the Kathryn McDonald Award.

Friday, May 9, 2014


I think co-authorship gets a bad rap.  Publishers tell me that books with multiple authors simply won't sell. Academics report that their peers and tenure committees don't give them enough credit for co-written work.

By contrast, my career has been built, at least in part, on co-writing books and proposals and essays with other people.  I'm not a huge believer in "writing by committee" -- at the end of the day, I think good writing has to have a singular voice -- but I have enjoyed collaborating with a broad range of co-authors. At the end of the day, writing is hard work. It is nice to be able to share the pain.

I'm not positive, but I think the person that I have co-written with the most over the years has been Aubrey Fox.  I bring this up because last night we formally said goodbye to Aubrey, who is leaving the Center for Court Innovation to head up the American operations of the Institute for Economics and Peace.

If you were building a dream co-author from scratch, I think it would look a lot like Aubrey.  First and foremost, he is a wonderful writer, capable of explaining complex ideas in clear language and introducing a sly humor into even dry topics.  He's also quick -- he can create something out of nothing in just a few hours. But the quality that I admire the most about Aubrey is that he is a fearless reporter, willing to talk to anyone to learn what he needs to tell a story.  In another, alternate universe, he would have been a great journalist.

The biggest project Aubrey and I worked on together was the book Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure that we published a couple of years ago with Urban Institute Press.  I think this is probably the best piece of work we did together, but if you are looking to read something shorter, here are three of my favorites:

I'm sad to see Aubrey leave the Center but I'm enormously proud of all that we were able to accomplish together over the past 15 years.  I'm hoping that I get to co-write with him again at some point in the future.