Friday, March 28, 2008

The Tipping Point

Elise sent along a link to the following article from Fast Company: Is the Tipping Point Toast? The article looks at the idea, popularizedby Malcolm Gladwell, that social trends can often be traced back to a handful of influential individuals. In the Fast Company article, Duncan Watts argues that Gladwell and his allies in the marketing industry vastly overrate the importance of "influentials."

I'm not smart enough to assess whether Watts' arguments are convincing or not, frankly. I do think he offers a valuable counter-narrative to the general excitement that Gladwell's work has generated about the power of influential individuals. And certainly the underlying theme of skepticism that runs through the piece -- the idea that no one really knows how to pick hit songs or start fashion trends -- I think is on the money.

The reason I'm interested in all of this is that we have recently launched an experiment in Red Hook called Youth ECHO that seeks to convince influential teenagers to spread an anti-crime message to their peers in the local public housing development. I don't think that Watts' argument invalidates the logic behind ECHO. Even he seems to agree that "some people are more instrumental than others." And needless to say, trying to influence behavior in a small, relatively closed community like the Red Hook Houses is different than trying to mass market a soft drink across the US. I'd argue that peer pressure and the opinions of leaders probably matter more the smaller and more intimate the setting is.

I'm not sure that the theory behind ECHO is accurate -- it is meant to be a test, after all. Whether we fail or succeed in influencing teen opinions in Red Hook (and given the depth and breadth of the problem -- youth crime -- the odds are against us), I think we will learn some interesting things.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Far Rockaway Youth Court

My favorite email of the week (thus far) came from Nancy in Far Rockaway, who sent along this photo of the Far Rockaway youth court members meeting their counterparts in Red Hook. It kind of feels like a Marvel Team-Up moment (yes, this is a comic book nerd reference).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Few Links

A handful of links:

A good article about crime and presidential politics from the New Republic is here.

Jack Straw, UK Justice Minister, calls for the expansion of community courts as a means of reducing the use of incarceration in an article in the Guardian.

An article in the Jury Pool News, the newsletter that is given to all jurors in the state of New York, about attendance court.

A piece on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is run by my pal Andrew Kimball, from the NY Daily News.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Increased Misdemeanor Arrests

From the New York Post: The city's crime reductions last year were fueled by cops locking up thousands more misdemeanor offenders. The total number of arrests surged from 303,414 in 2006 to 334,082 last year - a 10 percent increase - according to statistics obtained by The Post. The figure marked the highest arrest total since 2000, when the Giuliani administration popularized the "broken windows" theory - the belief that cops could prevent major felonies by aggressively going after low-level vandals, turnstile jumpers and other "quality of life" criminals. Full article is here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Journal of Court Innovation

This week sees the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Court Innovation, a new journal that we have created in collaboration with Pace Law School and the New York State Judicial Institute. The goal of the Journal is simple: to spark new thinking about how courts work and the role they play in our society. Like most scholarly journals, the Journal of Court Innovation will include in-depth examinations of complicated subjects. But it will also contain shorter pieces describing provocative experiments, interviews with leading thinkers and practitioners and book reviews that highlight cutting-edge scholarship. To access articles from the first issue, visit

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Crown Heights

Today I visited the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center's new storefront office on Kingston Avenue.  We have just a handful of staffers in Crown Heights, but their energy and creativity is truly remarkable.   Every time I visit, I come away with a bounce in my step. Over the past ten years, the Mediation Center has truly become part of the fabric of this fascinating neighborhood.   I encourage you to go check it out.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Basketball in the Bronx

Notes from around the Center...

Bronx Community Solutions: As a long-time hoops fan, one of my favorite projects is the basketball league sponsored by Bronx Community Solutions, which brings together ex-offenders to compete against teams composed of police officers. In the Bronx Community Solutions blog, Judah writes about the league’s annual award ceremony, and quotes an NYPD community affairs officer as saying: "I grew up in the Bronx, I know the about the tension between the youth and the police, and now I'm a cop. There’s a lack of communication and lots of confusion. Basketball leagues like this help."

Midtown Community Court: The Daily News used Eliot Spitzer’s troubles as a hook for a column about Midtown’s work with prostitutes.

Crown Heights Community Mediation Center: There’s good news to report from Crown Heights, which in addition to having moved into new offices, has just been awarded critical funding from the Independence Community Foundation. In the days ahead, the Crown Heights team will be providing mediation training to student government leaders at Brooklyn College and helping to facilitate a new coalition that was created in response to a recent alleged hate crime in the neighborhood.

Comings and Goings: I'm sad to report that Amy M. from the research department and Carolyn T. from the communications department will be leaving us over the next few weeks. Please join me in wishing them well as they embark on new adventures.

Jack Straw

A couple of weeks ago, Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice of Great Britain, visited the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. After his visit, he wrote an op-ed describing his experience at Red Hook for The Guardian. Given its eloquence, I thought it was worth sharing an excerpt:

This week, I have been in New York to visit the Red Hook Community Justice Center. This was the United States' first community court seeking to solve neighbourhood problems like drugs, crime and domestic violence not as separate problems, but as one. The centre has done much to increase people's confidence in criminal justice, from just 12% of residents feeling confident about their court before the centre opened in 2000, to 71% in 2001.

These are impressive statistics, hard to ignore. We're lucky in the United Kingdom that we have so much in our justice system of which we should be proud... But we should not be so proud that we are unable to learn lessons from others. In New York, they have recognised that the courts cannot do it alone. Without the cooperation of the community, many offenders simply repeat the cycle of offending and detention.

In 2005, we opened our own version of Red Hook, the community justice centre in north Liverpool. We also set up a community court in Salford. There are now 11 new community justice courts across England and Wales, building on the Liverpool and Salford models.

Community justice works by making courts more responsive to the priorities of local people. By strengthening the links between the courts and the community, I believe people's confidence in the work of the court will rise and the community will feel more confident about tackling offending behaviour.

In community courts, judges come out from behind the bench to attend local events. Offenders are ordered to carry out unpaid work as part of a sentence on projects nominated by residents. In this way, justice really is seen to be done.The courts aim to break the cycle of reoffending—and doing so is always the top priority of such courts —by tackling some of the underlying causes of crime such as drug and alcohol addiction, housing, education or debt problems. Sentences aim to include programmes to help solve these problems. Offenders are often young men leading chaotic lives, ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of providing for themselves.

The work of community courts doesn't stop at sentencing. They are able to order people back to court at any time during a community order, to check on their progress but also to support and encourage them when they are doing well. Research with offenders suggests the problem-solving approach improves compliance with their sentence and helps them avoid reoffending in the future. I want the public to see their courts as an accessible and vital part of their community. Courts that make a visible difference to the day-to-day lives of everyone who lives there, including offenders.

The community courts in England and Wales are part of a growing international movement that seeks to improve both neighborhood safety and public trust in justice. Recently, we have seen the idea of community justice spread to Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Australia and Scotland. Other countries that have visited our model projects or asked us to help them rethink their approach to neighborhood crime include Armenia, Georgia, China and the United Arab Emirates (to name just a few). If it continues to flourish, the community justice movement has the potential to achieve broad change in criminal justice systems across the world—and in the process help improve the lives of millions of disadvantaged people.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


The highlight of my week was a trip to Atlanta to moderate a panel on failure at a conference organized by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The idea behind the panel was to look at criminal justice reform efforts that have failed to live up to expectations -- and to extract lessons that might be of value to would-be innovators. The panel is part of a multi-faceted policy inquiry that we've been working on with the help of BJA. When all is said and done, the inquiry will include roundtables, white papers, toolkits, materials on the web and more.

Anyway, the reason why the Atlanta conference was such a highlight was that I was joined by three great panelists: Liz Glazer from the NY State Attorney General's Office, David Kennedy of John Jay College and Bob Keating of the NY State Judicial Institute. All three brought their own unique perspective to the panel. Having been the top criminal justice official in New York City during the Koch administration, Bob talked about the role that politics inevitably plays in determining the success or failure of any new idea. David, who has been the driving force behind well-publicized efforts to curb drug crime and gang violence in cities across the US, debunked several common myths, including the notion that the best way to implement a project is by "getting all the stakeholders at the table." And Liz, who has been a prosecutor at the federal and local level, talked about the difficulty that criminal justice agencies have in acknowledging failure and the need for long-term cultural change before this can happen on a regular basis.

At the start of the panel, I explained that our motivation for taking a deeper look at failure was to send a message that it is impossible to have trial without error and that failure can be an important stepping stone to success. This message was articulated much more eloquently by one of my favorite Nike commercials featuring Michael Jordan, which can be found here.

I can't speak for the audience, which included hundreds of police officials, prosecutors, probation officers, court managers and others from across the south, but I know I learned a lot from the panel.

As an aside, I encourage you to check out David's article "Pulling Levers," which is arguably one of the most influential academic articles to be written about criminal justice over the past decade or so.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Personal Stories

The past week has been another busy one here at the Center for Court Innovation. I'm writing to share a few tidbits. As always, this is not meant to be an exhaustive report -- apologies to all that I've missed....

Personal Stories: Last week saw the official release of "Personal Stories," the book about drug court graduates from across the state that was created by the Center for Courts and the Community. Jackie and Dory made a great short video to promote the book, which will be available on the Internet at some point -- I'll let you know. They are also using the book as a hook for Law Day activities this year, encouraging drug courts across the state to reach out to local schools to teach kids about the dangers of drug use.

Drug Court Conference: Last week in Buffalo was the annual NY drug court conference. This is a major event that draws more than 700 judges, attorneys, probation officers, court managers, drug treatment providers and others. As usual, Valerie and Dennis played a major behind-the-scenes role helping to organize the event. A number of other Center staffer attended to make presentations and spread the word about our work (thanks to Phil, in particular, for putting together our info table).

Harry Belafonte: Harry Belafonte (!) has reached out to us seeking advice as he begins a new enterprise -- creating cafes in several cities to employ ex-gang members. Chris and Adam had dinner last week with Belafonte, who hopes to locate one such cafe in Harlem. While the project is still at an early stage of the planning process, Belafonte brings a lot to the table in terms of resources and the potential for media exposure, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see his initiative get off the ground quickly. If it happens in Harlem, there are probably a number of opportunities for partnership with the Harlem Community Justice Center.

International Travels: Last week saw Aubrey in China to speak at a conference convened by the UN and International Bridges to Justice. There is an effort underway to reform the education through labor or administrative detention system in China, which is often used as a non-judicial response to minor crime. They are looking for new and less punitive responses to low-level offending and reached out to us to learn more about Bronx Community Solutions and the community court model in general. At the same time (more or less) that Aubrey was flying to China, Julius was returning from a whirlwind trip to Scotland, where he seemingly met with every high-ranking justice official in the country. The good news is that after a period in which little to no progress was made, it appears a community court for Glasgow is making headway again.

Misc: A few other notes, in Larry King style...we're happy to welcome Robyn back to the office after her maternity leave...speaking of kids, if you haven't already heard, Angela and Aaron are the latest Center staffers to join the parental ranks...our efforts to get money from the NYC Council and the US Congress are in full swing thanks to Al and Liberty...this week should see the publication of our new academic journal, which we have put together with Pace Law School and the NY State Judicial Institute...