Thursday, July 4, 2019

“If you are not safe, nothing else matters”




I wrote this review of Thomas Abt's new book "Bleeding Out" for the New York Law Journal

We are living in what might be called the golden age of criminal justice reform literature. In the wake of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s chart-topping, game-changing 2010 investigation of the intersection of race and criminal justice, have come an avalanche of related books. Ordinary Injustice by Amy Bach, Charged by Emily Bazelon, Punishment Without Crime by Alexandra Natapoff, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton…the list continues to grow. 

These works have a couple of things in common.  By and large, they are books that highlight the real and urgent problem of mass incarceration – the grim reality that more than 2.3 million Americans are currently locked up behind bars. Another thing they have in common is that they spend preciously little time talking about actually fighting crime. 
Thomas Abt’s Bleeding Out (Basic Books) fills an important gap in the emerging criminal justice canon. Abt, a former Manhattan prosecutor who worked at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, writes about the seemingly intractable problem of urban violence, which he calls the “pinnacle of social injustice.”   
While Alexander and those who have followed in her wake tend to focus on how the system mistreats the accused and the incarcerated, Abt takes as his subject the mistreatment of the people and places that are victimized by high rates of violent crime, and gun crime in particular. As Abt makes clear, even as we look to build a justice system that is truly fair and compassionate, we must not forget the devastating effects of violent behavior on our streets. 
This is not just a conservative talking point. Indeed, for Abt, reducing the homicide rate is the first step toward achieving broader social change. According to Abt, “high rates of violent crime are the structural linchpin of urban poverty, trapping poor people in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.” Quoting the human rights lawyer Gary Haugen, Abt argues “If you are not safe, nothing else matters.”  
In making the case for the importance of combating violence in places like Baltimore, St. Louis, and Chicago, Abt has not conducted new and original research. Nor does he advance a novel theory. Instead, his primary contribution is one of synthesis: he provides readers with a brisk summary of some of the greatest crime control thinkers of the past half century.
Drawing on the seminal work of Lawrence Sherman and David Weisburd, Abt makes the point that crime “clusters inside America’s distressed neighborhoods, but it does not do so uniformly.  Instead it concentrates among small groups of people, places and things.” 
Abt also quotes approvingly from the grandmother of urban theorists, the great Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace…of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are.  It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” 
Combining these two insights, Abt proposes an approach to urban violence that seeks to target the awful might of the modern criminal justice apparatus as surgically as possible , so that Jacobs’ informal mechanisms of social control can do their work in a peaceful fashion. Violence, he argues, is a big problem that actually demands small solutions: .
Urban violence imposes tremendous costs on poor communities and the public at large, but because it is highly concentrated among a few people, places, and behaviors, it is actually “small” in terms of policy…we can do a lot with a little. 
Abt espouses an anti-violence agenda that balances help (investments in community non-profits, street outreach programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy) with the strategic use of punishment (incapacitating chronic offenders).  
Here, Abt is particularly indebted to the work of David Kennedy, the architect of the “focused deterrence” model of crime prevention. Kennedy’s model attempts to focus the energies of both justice agencies and community groups on those individuals within a given community who are most at-risk of engaging in violent behavior, particularly those who are already on probation or parole for prior criminal activity. These individuals are offered a choice: they can take advantage of services and be reintegrated into the community or they can experience the full weight of local law enforcement agencies.  
Kennedy’s focused deterrence model was first tested in Boston in the 1990s, to remarkable effect – researchers documented that it contributed to a significant reduction in youth homicide.  Since then, the model has been adapted in dozens of other American cities.  A recent review of the research on focused deterrence conducted by the Campbell Collaboration found that there is strong empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the model.  

In writing about focused deterrence and other anti-violence strategies, Abt is driven by a question that many of the current books about criminal justice do not even bother to ask: how can we change the behavior of those who are involved in the most damaging kinds of criminal conduct? 
In attempting to answer this question, there are certain avenues that Abt does not explore fully. One is culture.  Why is the rate of homicide five times higher in the US than in Canada or the United Kingdom?  Is the easy availability of handguns the primary explanation? Or is there something in the American DNA (eg. the myth of the gunfighter) that encourages the idea that violence is an appropriate way to resolve disputes?  Do our violent delights (first-person shooter games, gangster movies, etc.) necessarily entail violent ends?
Like many commentators, Abt spends a good chunk of his book looking at the persistence of racial disparities in the justice system. Another, arguably more pronounced, disparity is mentioned only in passing: gender.  Roughly 9 out of 10 homicides in the US are committed by men. Why is this?  Does biology explain the gender gap?  Is there something amiss in the way we think about and perform masculinity?  Are there other possible explanations?
While Abt leaves these questions unanswered, he has, in the end, made a valuable contribution to our current conversation about crime and justice.  In particular, Bleeding Out makes a strong case that “sustainable crime control does not happen without social justice, and vice versa.”  These goals are often viewed in conflict with each other, but Abt argues that they are inextricably bound together.  
Combating persistent violence in urban communities should be a national priority.  But politics often gets in the way of clear thinking about how to move forward. Abt has a clear message for demagogues on both sides of the aisle.  He argues that conservatives should abandon rhetoric (eg “black-on-black crime”) that implicitly advances ideas of racial inferiority. In a similar vein, he tells progressive activists that “characterizing all of criminal justice as irredeemably racist or illegitimate does not actually advance a broader social justice agenda.” 
Here’s hoping that all of our presidential candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, heed Abt’s compelling call for change.  

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Future Will Be Different


The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. -- Peter Drucker

Today, the NYC Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and the Center for Court Innovation co-sponsored an event at New York Law School that focused on the future of criminal justice in New York City.

The basic premise of the forum was that the historic reductions in crime and incarceration of the past generation combined with a growing understanding of the harms that criminal justice system involvement can cause have helped to spark a new kind of conversation about crime in New York City.  In particular, many reformers are now looking for ways to promote public safety that do not rely on the traditional mechanisms (arrest-adjudication-incarceration-supervision) of the criminal justice system.

Over the course of three hours, leading thinkers from government, academia, and the non-profit sector grappled with the challenge of how to simultaneously shrink the footprint of the justice system while continuing to reduce neighborhood crime. Part of this involved a look backwards, attempting to explain both the successes of the past generation in New York City (the safest big city in the country, with an incarceration rate that is closer to Europe than it is to many American cities) and some of the failures (recurring racial disparities at basically every point in the criminal justice system).  For a snapshot of some of the data that was presented by Liz Glazer from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice today, click here.

The conversation at New York Law School toggled back and forth between visionary thinking (is it possible to imagine a future with no jails or prisons or probation or parole?) and concrete problems that we still need to solve in the here and now (can we reduce technical violations of parole?  what should we be doing to address the places that are still hot spots of crime?).  I found the combination of lofty ambition and real-life concerns to be invigorating.  A few random highlights from the notes that I scribbled during the event:

Eric Cumberbatch of the Mayor's Office to Prevent Gun Violence focused on the history of disinvestment and direct sabotage that has been inflicted on many black and brown communities, arguing that justice should be about healing.  He also made the case that "we can't police our way out of historic problems."

Justine Olderman of Bronx Defenders argued that agitation by outside reformers has been crucial to New York's ability to reduce both crime and incarceration rates.

Judge Edwina G. Mendelson broadened the lens of the conversation to include families, discussing recent changes in Family Court and significant reductions in the number of children in foster care in New York.

David Weisburd, a criminologist at George Mason University, argued that police are still necessary to the fight against crime. He also suggested that the police's response to crime might look very different in the years to come than it does today.  For Weisburd, the operative question seemed to be not whether there should be police or not, but rather what should police be doing?

Divine Pryor of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions echoed Weisburd's point, saying that it is imperative to more clearly define the role of police. He also said that there is a need to repair the relationship between police and communities and that an essential first step is for police to acknowledge, and ideally apologize for, the harms that have historically been inflicted on African-American communities.

Patrick Sharkey of New York University said that the evidence is clear: police help to reduce crime.  He also made a powerful argument for looking beyond law enforcement as the primary response to criminal behavior. In particular, he suggested that neighborhood residents be paid to play a pro-social role in public space.

Alex Blau, a behavioral economist at ideas42, suggested that we should be looking to replicate the Becoming a Man program that has successfully been tested in Chicago.

DeAnna Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA argued that the media has "normalized violence" in certain communities. She also talked about the need not just to change police behavior but to encourage people to call on police less frequently.

Cy Vance Jr, the elected District Attorney in Manhattan, talked about the potential impacts of the bail reform legislation recently passed in Albany and, in particular, about the need for more funding for pretrial services.  He also tried to re-frame the conversation about supervision of justice-involved individuals, saying that if done right, supervision "isn't a negative" -- its about providing help to individuals.

Rosalie Genevro of the Architectural League of New York advanced the idea that developing more supportive housing was among the most important investments that New York City could make in the days ahead.

Vivian D. Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship said that she felt there one source of New York City's success in recent years was increased collaboration, particularly between government and communities.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Adapting to Change


The field of criminal justice has shifted in some dramatic ways over the past half decade or so.  In the 1990s and 2000s, the field seemed to me dominated by a perception that "tough-on-crime" policymaking was the preferred mode of both political actors and the general public. Against this backdrop, those who were interested in advancing the idea of rehabilitation had to be both modest and cautious. In those years, even when Democrats were ascendant in the White House or local state houses, reformers took great pains to highlight the cost-effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration. Many adopted the language of "evidence-based programs" as a means to depoliticize the conversation about crime, making a technocratic case for less punitive policymaking.

Even though I have been alive and (mostly) awake through these years, I'm not 100 percent certain why the field of criminal justice has changed so much as our current decade has progressed.  Certainly, Michele Alexander's book The New Jim Crow has had an enormous impact, as has Ta-Nehisi Coates' writings about mass incarceration. I think that the rise of social media, and the amplification it has given to ideas (for better and for worse) that were previously obscure or extreme,  has also played a role.  I'd also argue that the improvement in public safety in many American cities has been a significant underlying factor, reducing levels of fear among the chattering class in places like New York and Washington DC.

Whatever the reasons, there has been a rejiggering of the criminal justice narrative, at least in intellectual circles. Many politicians, advocates, and academics now view criminal justice primarily through a civil rights lens. This lens has sharpened our focus on racial disparities within the justice system and on the manifold harms that can accompany conviction and incarceration, not just for the individual defendant but for his family and community as well. It has pricked the moral conscience of many Americans and generated an outpouring of both compassion and outrage. All of a sudden, ideas that would have been non-starters less than a decade ago -- closing Rikers Island! raising the age of criminal responsibility! eliminating cash bail! decriminalizing marijuana! etc etc -- are not only plausible but popular across a fairly broad political spectrum. An array of new funders and new organizations have emerged to advance these and other ambitious goals.

How long this will last is anyone's guess. The tectonic plates of public opinion and government policymaking tend to shift slowly.  For example, we continued to pursue high rates of incarceration well after the crime spikes of the 1970s and 1980s faded.  So, if history is any guide, we may be in our current mode for quite some time -- I think only a sustained uptick in crime, and the resulting public and political backlash, would be capable of altering the trajectory of the moment.

All of this is mostly good news for those of us in the criminal justice reform business. To be sure, there is the danger of over-correction. We should be mindful of babies and bathwater.  Our desire to transform the justice system should not be heedless -- we cannot blithely dispense with practices that have proven to be effective at curbing local crime or core principles (e.g. due process) that continue to make the American justice system a model for many countries around the world.

Our current criminal justice moment does offer some challenges for someone like me who lived through the bad old days when urban life really was defined by high levels of street crime and disorder.  Starting my professional career in 1990, I was profoundly shaped by the era when isolated and incremental criminal justice reform was the best that could ever be achieved -- and even this took a huge measure of political skill along with a healthy dose of luck.

These years profoundly shaped my worldview. They taught me to focus on the importance of using empirical evidence, establishing realistic goals, and promoting neighborhood safety. They also impressed upon me the value of using plain language that is not ideologically freighted in order to speak to as wide an audience as possible.

In recent days, I have been attempting in my writing to bring these values forward while adapting to the exigencies (and passions) of our current moment.  Here are a few examples:

Why We Need to Rethink Misdemeanor Justice (Governing)

Can We Stop Both Crime and Incarceration? (Public Books)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Electrifying Sounds

In 1994, I was living in Providence, Rhode Island and supporting myself by taking on a bunch of different writing projects, one of which was writing music criticism for the local paper -- The Providence Journal.  It was good fun, allowing me to see a bunch of great bands (Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, etc. etc.) on someone else's dime. Alas, these were the days before the Internet, so all of the concert and album reviews I wrote are basically lost to the sands of time.  (Note to the ProJo: please digitize your archives!)  Doing a recent pre-spring cleaning, I found some of the pieces that I wrote, a few of which I have decided to post here, just so they don't disappear completely.









Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Safety and Well-Being



Today at the Robin Hood Foundation, the Center for Court Innovation co-hosted a panel on neighborhood safety with Neighbors in Action and the Decarcerated podcast.  Panelists included Marlon PetersonAmy EllenbogenErica Mateo, and Mark Winston Griffith.

Thanks in no small part to the good work of moderator Errol Louis, the conversation was lively and broad-ranging.  The idea behind the event was to encourage a paradigm shift away from conventional law enforcement (arrest, prosecution, incarceration) as the primary response to local crime.


In making this case, the panel highlighted work currently underway in various parts of Brooklyn -- places like Brownsville, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant -- that seeks to engage at-risk populations, address chronic victimization, combat bias, re-make the built environment, and provide positive pathways for local young people, among other things.

The panelists were united in arguing that safety means more than simply the absence of crime.  Together, they offered a vision of vibrant community life that foregrounded the absence of fear -- including fear of over-aggressive policing -- and the building of trust, which I took to mean not just trust among neighbors but between local residents and government.

Given that the conversation took place at Robin Hood, a foundation that is famous for its insistence on rigorous performance metrics, Errol Louis asked about how community well-being should be measured.  This area is ripe for more thought.  The panelists emphasized that building community cohesion takes years.  They also pointed to the history of racism and community disinvestment in this country as realities that must be dealt with if we hope to build public trust and confidence in government.

While acknowledging the obstacles and challenges to creating healthy communities, the tone of the conversation was hopeful. The panelists encouraged both government and philanthropy to make long-term investments in the kinds of groups that are serving as connective tissue at the neighborhood level.  (This echoes a point that Patrick Sharkey made in his recent book, Uneasy Peace -- that the improvements in public safety in American cities over the past generation owe a lot to the unglamorous work done on the ground by local non-profits.)

The final word for me came from Erica Mateo, who talked about the need for tangible goals, reasonable expectations, and small victories.  It requires patience of course, but I believe that if you put together enough small victories that, over time, it can add up to significant change.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A New York Story


I am about halfway through reading the Beastie Boys Book, which I recommend heartily.  The early chapters are my favorites – Ad-Rock and Mike D are particularly adept at summoning the ghost of New York City in the 1980s, with all of its dangers and possibilities.  
I am not generally given to nostalgia for the New York City of this era -- I thought it was bad when Washington Square Park was an open-air drug market and you couldn’t walk down 42ndStreet without being approached by prostitutes.  But Ad-Rock and MCA highlight some important elements of the ‘80s that are worth celebrating.  
Most notably, the 1980s in New York was a time of cultural cross-pollination, as punk met new wave met disco met rap (among other things). For example, in 1982, a DJ from the Bronx, Afrika Bambaataa, transformed “Trans-Europe Express” by the German electronic band Kraftwerk into the groundbreaking hip-hop single “Planet Rock."  
These kinds of mash-ups, which were happening seemingly every few weeks, were a big part of what initially attracted me to hip-hop.  It was positively dizzying to see a new musical genre emerge from the shards of other, earlier genres.  On Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys’ debut album, you could hear bits and bobs from Trouble Funk, Led Zeppelin, War, the Clash, and dozens of other groups, all stirred together into something new and different. This kind of borrowing doesn’t feel possible today given the legalities/costs of sampling and the current obsession with cultural appropriation. 
Licensed to Ill came out in 1986.  I was 19 years old, a Washington DC kid going to school at Wesleyan University.  
Around that time, I made one of my first trips to New York by myself, meeting a few college buddies to watch the Knicks play the Bulls.  (Unfortunately, Michael Jordan got injured before the game, turning a marquee match-up into something considerably less exciting. If memory serves, Patrick Ewing also didn’t play.)  
Anyway, the next day, I went to catch a cab.  I was trying to get to Port Authority so I could take a bus back to school in Connecticut.  No doubt I looked like what I was: an easy mark. 
A man approached me as I tried to pretend I was the kind of person who knew how to hail a cab: “Where you goin’?”
“To Port Authority,” I responded
“I’ll take you. Five dollars.”
Hmmm…..
Any real New Yorker will know what comes next.  I took out my wallet to give him five dollars. As soon as the wallet came out of my pocket, he grabbed it and started running.  
I took off after him. I know not what I would have done had I caught him.  But try to catch him I did, sprinting after him for blocks.  I was fueled by pure desperation.  These were the days before cell phones.  Without my wallet, I had no money, no ID, no credit cards…no way of getting back to college.
I thought I was gaining on the thief when he turned the corner off the avenue and onto a side street.  As I followed after him, I came crashing into an elderly woman with a shopping bag, nearly knocking her over.  The chase was over.
I apologized profusely to the woman.  She asked me what happened.  I told her my sob story.  After she had composed herself, she instructed me to walk with her.  
I thought I was doing her a favor, accompanying her to ensure that no further harm befell her on her shopping trip.  But when I looked up, we were at the Port Authority.  She took some bills out of her purse and gave me enough money to buy a bus ticket to Middletown, Connecticut.  I didn’t ask her name or get her address.  I never saw her again.  But needless to say, I will never forget her kindness.
The moral of the story: New York taketh away, but it also giveth. The ‘80s had some bad bits, but some good bits too. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

20 Years in Crown Heights


Twenty years ago, we created a storefront mediation center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  In some ways, it was a lunatic undertaking.  The Center for Court Innovation was only a couple of years old.  We had no name recognition and zero reputation.  Nor did we have meaningful roots or connections in Crown Heights.  What we had was a small grant from the City of New York, which was interested in improving inter-group relations in the neighborhood and willing to give us some room to decide what that should look like.  More than that, we had the two things that have proven crucial to all of our success over the years, both in Crown Heights and the world beyond: we had an idea and we had talented people. 

Yesterday, we held a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the re-naming of the Mediation Center, which will now be known as Neighbors In Action.  I must confess to a bit of sadness at saying farewell to the Mediation Center.  The Mediation Center was launched the week my first daughter was born, so it has always had a special place in my heart.  Over the years, we worked hard to establish the Mediation Center and to develop its identity.  It has become well-known and well-liked not just in central Brooklyn but across the City.  Nonetheless, the name change is probably overdue -- the project long ago moved away from a primary focus on either mediation or Crown Heights.

I went to a seminar on managing organizational growth recently and one of the speakers said that organizations are either busy growing or busy dying.  I don't quite believe this is true -- I think sometimes less is more.  But I do believe that organizations can't stay the same.  They need to evolve and adapt.  And that's what makes me most proud of our history in Crown Heights.  Thanks to great on-site leadership, we have consistently dreamed up and implemented new programmatic wrinkles. When you take a step back, it is clear that, no matter what the name on the t-shirt says, we have become a valuable neighborhood institution -- nurturing amazing local talent, addressing pressing local problems, and knitting together diverse local groups. 

The two photos above and below tell a bit of the story of our work in Crown Heights.  Our location has changed. Our branding has gotten better.  Our team has gotten exponentially bigger.  But it still comes down to our ability to generate good ideas and attract outstanding people. 

Congratulations to all who have played a role in making both the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and Neighbors in Action happen.


Monday, July 16, 2018

"Band-Aids or Brain Surgery"


This week has begun with sad news: Robert Keating has passed away. 

Keating (and he was always "Keating" to me) was, for the better part of four decades, one of the most influential criminal justice policymakers in New York City.  He held a number of important positions during those years, including serving as criminal justice coordinator for Mayor Ed Koch and the chief administrative judge for the New York City criminal courts.

It was in this capacity that Keating helped to midwife the Midtown Community Court.  The photo above captures him (on the right) with Midtown's founding director John Feinblatt back in the early 1990s. 

As this early New York Times piece highlights, Keating was a capable rhetorician.  He used the expression "band-aids or brain surgery" to describe the limited options (jail or nothing) available to judges in many criminal cases. His support was absolutely crucial in helping the Midtown Community Court overcome the opposition of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. 

I first met Keating in 1994 as part of the interview process for the job as lead planner of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  Wearing his trademark bow tie, he made a strong first impression. He was an operator.  He liked to gossip.  But most of all, he liked to get things done.

I got to see this quality up close on many joint projects over the years. Among other things, we worked together to create a judicial summit in the aftermath of 9-11 and the (alas) short-lived Journal of Court Innovation. He participated in numerous roundtables that we organized at the Center for Court Innovation, including a memorable one on failure in the criminal justice system. We served together on the board of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. And we crossed paths frequently as part of his service on the board of the Fund for the City of New York. 

It always made me happy whenever Keating was involved in a project.  You always knew what you were getting from him: intelligence, leadership, and a sense of fun. You could throw Keating into complicated situations and he would somehow manage to make sense of them.  A good example of this was when we arranged for him to speak in London about community courts.  With very little preparation, he was able to make a convincing case to many of the leaders of the justice system in England. 

But perhaps my strongest memory of Keating is of a piece of paper.  In the early days of the Midtown Community Court, we produced a regular internal report about the work of the Court -- what types of cases were being processed by the court, the disposition rate, compliance with alternative sanctions, etc.  For years, it was known as the "Keating Report."  This to me symbolizes his commitment to his craft, his interest in the internal workings of the justice system, his personal sense of responsibility, and his relentless dedication to positive change. 

I will miss him.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

How to Change the Criminal Justice System


For reasons that are somewhat obscure to me, in recent days I have felt the need to defend criminal justice practitioners.  This is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, I am nobody's idea of a frontline practitioner -- I have never arrested, prosecuted, adjudicated, or rehabilitated anybody.  Second, the agency where I work is in many respects predicated on a critique of standard practice in the justice system -- if system actors were doing their jobs perfectly, there would be no need for an agency like the Center for Court Innovation.

That said, I have felt protective of judges, attorneys, and other frontline players in recent days.  One potential reason for this is that so much of the conversation about justice reform pretends like they don't exist or that their insights aren't of any value.  I wrote a whole book, with Aubrey Fox, a few years ago that looked at the many ways that practitioners can spell the difference between success and failure when it comes to criminal justice reform.  I still believe in this idea.  (See Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure.)

Another reason that I have wanted to defend criminal justice agencies is that very few people seem inclined to do so these days.  These agencies are currently under siege from both the left and the right.  I don't hold any illusions; I know our justice agencies are deeply flawed.  And I also think that they are important institutions that our society cannot function effectively without.  Undermining public confidence in them seems like a dangerous game. 

At the end of the day, the goal of most criminal justice reform efforts is to change the behavior of system players.  There are many ways to attempt to accomplish this goal.  Certainly we have seen that legislative efforts or policy changes or impact litigation can successfully constrain the options of system actors, limiting their ability to impose lengthy prison sentences or detain individuals during the pre-trial period, for example.  I think all of these are legitimate pathways to change.  I also think that true and lasting change requires some measure of buy-in from police officers, probation officers, correctional officers and others who actually administer the criminal justice system each day.  And I think that this buy-in is mostly likely to occur when they have been part of the change process.

In recent years, I have written a handful of pieces that attempt to make this case. I think I keep writing about this subject because I'm not sure that I have quite nailed it yet.  Here are a few examples:

Our Two Kinds of Justice, and How To Reconcile Them -- This piece, from Governing, attempts to wrestle with the reality that many people in the justice system are trying to do the right thing, but the system is not achieving just results.  


The Justice System Case for Radical Incrementalism -- This essay, written with Julian Adler, argues that New York City has been a case study of how small changes in practice can sometimes add up to systemic reform.  More on this subject can be found in our book, Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration

The Challenge of Cultural Change on Rikers Island -- I wrote this piece for the Gotham Gazette after stepping down from the NYC Board of Correction. It describes my experience visiting Rikers and meeting correctional officers that defied my preconceived notions.  







Thursday, April 26, 2018

More Than Just A Court


Earlier this week, I spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.  It was a nice event, highlighted by a keynote address by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked about the need to address the over-use of incarceration in this country.
When it was my turn to speak, I decided to tip my hat to the evening's host, former New York City Mayor Dinkins.  If you follow the dominoes, you could argue that I owe my career to Dinkins -- his decision to invest in the Midtown Community Court helped set the wheels in motion that ultimately led to the creation of the Center for Court Innovation.
This is a version of what I said at the Dinkins forum (definitely not verbatim):
I got my start in criminal justice in 1993.  Working for John Feinblatt, I played a small role in the planning of the Midtown Community Court.  Midtown was (and is) a neighborhood-based court that seeks to focus on misdemeanor crime in and around Times Square, offering alternatives to fines and short jail sentences.   It also seeks to treat individual defendants with dignity and respect, and to link them to the kinds of social services – drug treatment, counseling, job training – that might help them get their lives back on track.
In attempting to do all this, Midtown was tilting into a pretty strong head wind.  Remember, the context was 1993.  We were coming off a decade when they regularly made movies like Escape from New York, The Warriors, and Fort Apache the Bronx that offered a fairly bleak portrait of life in New York City. The crack epidemic was still very much in the forefront of people’s minds.  This was an era of tough-on-crime legislation.  Megan’s Law, Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out, mandatory minimums…the net effect of all this was to toughen penalties for criminal behavior and tilt the scales of justice in the direction of prosecutors.
Given this backdrop, it took a measure of political courage to greenlight a project like the Midtown Community Court which explicitly sought to provide help to criminal defendants and was vehemently opposed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The Mayor who made Midtown happen was David Dinkins.  
In an editorial entitled “More than just a court” endorsing the project, the New York Times had this to say about Midtown:
The court that Mayor David Dinkins announced this week could improve justice and the quality of life where minor crime has become routine. The Midtown Community Court will hear misdemeanor cases. Rather than impose fines or short jail terms as is now common, the new court would sentence many such offenders to useful tasks like cleaning graffiti, helping at soup kitchens or sorting trash at recycling centers.  At the same time it would link them to social services available at the courthouse. It is a sound investment that could greatly enhance justice in the perception of both criminals and victims.
When Midtown was first launched in 1993 it was viewed as a radical, out-of-the-box idea.  If you fast forward to today, you will see that the rest of the criminal justice system in New York City has come to look a lot like the Midtown Community Court.  
New York City is much safer than it used to be.  Less well documented is the reality that the use of jail has also declined significantly.  Like crime, incarceration is down, and not just by a little. The use of jail in New York peaked at more than 20,000 in the 1990s. Today, there are less than 8,500 people behind bars. (As I have written elsewhere, this success is not down to any individual politician or piece of legislation, but rather the product of incremental changes that took place over the course of a generation.)
New York City has the lowest incarceration rate of all large American cities.  And it accomplished this during a period when incarceration rates were rising across the country. Remarkably, it is now possible to imagine closing Rikers Island.  Indeed, this is the official policy of the City of New York thanks to Mayor Bill De Blasio.  To say that this would have been inconceivable in 1993 is an understatement. 
So that’s the good news.  The bad news is that even though NYC is an international model of criminal justice reform, we still have glaring problems in our criminal justice system.  
If you take a trip to criminal court, the racial disparities in our system will smack you in the face.  And if you visit Rikers Island, you will see that the system is not really designed to recognize the fundamental humanity of those within it (be they detainees or correction officers).  Rather, it feels like the criminal justice system is an accelerant of human misery – that it takes people struggling with addiction and joblessness and mental health issues and other individual problems and makes them worse. 
There are many challenges that we need to confront before we can be said to have a justice system that lives up to its highest ideals in terms of fairness and effectiveness. But the biggest challenge for me is time.
I don’t think that the kind of transformation that we need to see in the justice system is going to happen overnight.  It is going to take time to win the hearts and minds of those who operate the justice system.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of other worthy issues competing for our (limited) attention spans. If I could ask for just one thing for those of us who are in the business of criminal justice reform, it would be the gift of patience.