Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unsung Heroes

One of the things that it took me awhile to learn when I started working in the non-profit sector is that titles only tell you so much about how an organization actually works. Within almost any agency there are people who do not hold particularly lofty positions but end up being crucial to the process of actually getting things done. Today at the Center we celebrated one such person: our office manager Veronica, who is leaving us to move to Beirut. Veronica is rigorously self-effacing but the truth of the matter is that she has been a key behind-the-scenes player here. Veronica was the first hire I made after I became the director of the Center and she has provided us with an administrative backbone as we have doubled in size over the past decade. I will miss Veronica's wicked sense of humor, her integrity, and the unfailingly high standards she set not just for herself, but for me and the entire organization.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Good Month (And It Ain't Over Yet)

The month of June has been a whirlwind at the Center for Court Innovation. In addition to the usual work, we have organized the opening of Newark Community Solutions, an attendance court graduation in Harlem, youth court events in Greenpoint and Harlem, the unveiling of the Youth Justice Board's latest recommendations, a reentry court graduation, a celebration of the fathers who participate in the Midtown Community Court's parenting program, an anniversary celebration at QUEST, and a community event in Brownsville where we shared the findings of our neighborhood survey with local residents. Along the way, our procedural fairness work has been profiled in the ABA Journal, our reentry work in the Bronx was featured in the Daily News, and the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre was the subject of debate in the House of Lords. And I haven't even mentioned Mike's trip to speak at the prestigious Stockholm Criminology Conference. Or Julius, Elvita and Brett going to Australia to advance the cause of community justice. I could go on, but you get the picture. Just a spectacular month all around.

Friends Who Write

My earlier mention of Joanna Schwartz's op-ed in the Times made me realize that I actually have a number of friends who are good writers whose work I should be promoting. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Clara Jeffrey, the editor of Mother Jones, has a recent piece on the demands of American working life.

Andy Postman shares his idiosyncratic take on the world at

John Bostwick has a blog about American soccer.

Aubrey Fox has a blog about the NBA.

Glenn Markman has a blog about real estate.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Assistant US Attorney General Laurie Robinson has created a new website,, dedicated to helping visitors sift through the research on what works in criminal justice reform. Here's how the Justice Department describes the site: is intended to be a central, reliable, and credible resource to help practitioners and policymakers understand what works in justice-related programs and practices. The site includes information on over 125 justice-related programs and assigns “evidence ratings” -- effective, promising or no effects -- to indicate whether there is evidence from research that a program achieves its goals.

This is an exciting development for the field. It is even more exciting from a parochial, Center for Court Innovation perspective because several of the programs that the Justice Department chose to highlight as effective are programs that we had a hand in either creating or evaluating: drug courts in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Suffolk County.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Kids, Art and Red Hook

I spent yesterday afternoon in Red Hook at a reception to celebrate a youth photography project that the Justice Center co-sponsored with the Brooklyn Arts Council. It was a feel-good event: beautiful weather, fascinating photographs, good kids, etc. The highlight for me was my conversation with the mother of one of the junior photographers. She said she had lived in Red Hook her entire life and had attended Visitation School (the Catholic school that, after having been closed for 20 years, we were able to turn into the home of the Justice Center). She was generous in her praise of the Justice Center, not only for rehabilitating the building, but for its impact on the health of the community. It was a good bookend to a week that also featured the pomp and circumstance of the Newark opening. As nice as it to hear the Mayor of Newark and other dignitaries praise our work, at the end of the day, our success depends upon the impact we have on the lives of people on the ground in Red Hook, Crown Heights, Harlem, and the other neighborhoods where we do business.

P.S. My friend Joanna Schwartz, a professor at UCLA Law School, had an op-ed in the New York Times this week that is worth checking out, particularly since it uses one of my favorite Elvis Costello tunes as a headline.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Notes from Newark

Over the course of the 17 years (!) that I've been doing this work, I've been blessed to participate in some memorable public events. I was there when US Attorney General Janet Reno toured the Red Hook Community Justice Center. I was at the award ceremonies when the Center received the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation and the Prize for Public Sector Innovation from the Citizens Budget Commission. I was at the Harlem Community Justice Center when Mayor Rudy Giuliani held an impromptu press conference about his love life. I was at the Midtown Community Court's 10th anniversary breakfast when the lord chancellor of England and Wales came to tell Mayor Michael Bloomberg that Britain would be emulating our community court model.

To these powerful memories I can now add a new entry: yesterday's opening of Newark Community Solutions. There sre many reasons why Newark's opening will stand out in my mind. First was the remarkable turnout: a standing-room only crowd that filled the City Council chambers with government officials, non-profit executives, clergy, community groups and a fair number of Center for Court Innovation staffers from across our different operating projects.

Then there was the keynote address by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose reputation for eloquence turns out to be well-deserved. Among other things, Booker saluted the "heroes" that work at Newark Community Solutions and other criminal justice experiments in Newark. He connected their work to the history of American reform movements, including the efforts to pass civil rights legislation, to abolish slavery and to declare our independence from England.

As compelling as Booker was, he was nearly matched by the other speakers at the event. In particular, I will long remember the remarks of Judge Victoria Pratt who talked about being able to see the impact of Newark Community Solutions on a daily basis in the faces of the defendants who come before her having made real progress in transforming their lives.

It has taken a little while for Newark Community Solutions to get off the ground. Initial planning began about five years ago. But as with the Red Hook Community Justice Center (six years in planning, for the record), the wait seems to have had some positive, if unintended, benefits. Namely, it has allowed the project to develop and solidify relationships with a broad range of local partners. In my experience, the kind of community spirit in evidence yesterday afternoon can't be faked. It also doesn't happen overnight. Massive credit goes to Jethro, Adam and the rest of the team at Newark Community Solutions for putting in the hard work and long hours to make it happen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Planting the Flag in Syracuse

I spent yesterday in Syracuse visiting our office there. It had been awhile: since my last visit to Central New York, we've added new staff, moved into new office space, and launched several new initiatives focused on tribal justice issues. Syracuse and London are half a world apart, obviously, but we are basically attempting to do the same thing in both locations: plant our flag in new territory. One of the things I like about the Center for Court Innovation is that we are committed to adapting to conditions on the ground. So while the goal is the same, our offices in Syracuse and London are evolving in different ways (an emphasis on tribal justice wouldn't make much sense in England, for example). Now if I could just figure out a way for Syracuse and London to share information effectively so that they can learn from each others trials and tribulations...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

LeBron James and the Weight of High Expectations

Last year around this time I wrote about the NBA Finals and how Ray Allen's stellar Game 2 performance (8 three pointers made) was as much the product of teamwork as individual brilliance. Unfortunately, things went south for Allen and the Celtics from there -- they ended up losing in seven and Allen never approached that level of performance again.

This year, a similar drama is unfolding on an even grander scale. After destroying the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James has basically gone missing. Instead of imposing his will on the game (he is the best player in the world, after all), he's been strangely passive. It is hard to escape the feeling that if the Heat end up losing, LeBron will have cost them the series.

For reasons that I don't fully understand, I find myself fervently rooting for James. I think it is partly because I believe he got a bum rap for leaving Cleveland -- I don't understand why so many fans and writers seemed to think that this decision carried some sort of moral weight. And I think it is partly because, despite his physical dominance, LeBron has in fact always seemed a little fragile. There's something more human (read: endearing) about him than the players he is most often compared to, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

While there are plenty of theories about why LeBron is playing as poorly as he is (the fatigue of a long season, bad chemistry with Dwayne Wade, the defense of the Mavericks, etc.), the one that I find most convincing is that the moment has simply gotten to him. The pressure of constantly being watched, of being hated by millions of people, of being expected to be the best player every time you take the is basically beyond my capacity to imagine. In Game 5, LeBron had a triple double -- something that's only been done by about a dozen players before, all of them basically hall-of-famers -- and was universally criticized for having a poor game. There's a lesson in here somewhere about the importance of managing expectations and the danger of setting unrealistic standards.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Youth Perspectives on Brownsville

Yesterday, we celebrated the release of Looking Forward: Youth Perspectives on Reducing Crime in Brownsville and Beyond, the latest report from our Youth Justice Board, an after-school leadership development program that recruits teenagers from across New York City to study a public policy issue of importance to young people. The event, which was held at John Jay College, featured a keynote address by Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, who talked about his commitment to improving public safety in Brownsville, his history of partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, and his eagerness to hear and respond to the concerns of young people. After that, the Youth Justice Board presented their findings to a crowd that included foundation executives, NYPD officials, and other city bigwigs. The highlight for me was during the Q and A session when NYC Probation Commissioner Vinny Schiraldi asked the kids what advice they had for him about reforming probation. The moment encapsulated what we are trying to achieve with the program: getting the perspectives of young people taken seriously by city decisionmakers. For more information about the Youth Justice Board's latest report, check out this blog post from Linda Baird on the Reclaiming Futures website.

Monday, June 6, 2011

England, Research and Failure

Three recent clips from around the world wide web featuring speakers from the Center for Court Innovation:

T2A National Conference Film 6: Expert Panel Discussion from Barrow Cadbury Trust on Vimeo.

Aubrey Fox (see above video) at an event convened by the Barrow Cadbury Trust talking about criminal justice reform in England.

Michael Rempel talks about the challenges of conducting randomized trials in criminal courts.

Video clips from my recent trip to DC to talk at a National Institute of Justice forum about community courts and the trial and error process.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don Farole

Yesterday brought awful news: Don Farole of the Bureau of Justice Statistics has passed away. A PhD in political science, Don worked at the Center for Court Innovation as a researcher up until a couple of years ago. I will remember Don for many things, not least of which was his remarkable productivity. A quick review of all of the documents that Don wrote for us reveals a number of important intellectual contributions to the field of criminal justice. My personal favorites include Avoiding Failures of Implementation, Applying the Problem-Solving Model Outside of Problem-Solving Courts, and the Harlem Parole Reentry Court Evaluation. Although, truth be told, everything that Don worked on was first-rate. He was a clear thinker and a sharp writer -- two qualities that are perpetually in short supply.

But as anyone who knew him can attest, Don was more than a workhorse -- he was a fundamentally good guy. He had a dry sense of humor and a sly smile that always seemed to suggest that he was one step ahead of the conversation. I know I speak for lots of folks, not just here at the Center but throughout the field of criminal justice, when I say that Don will be missed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pretrial Justice

I spent the better part of the last two days in Washington D.C. attending the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice.

The symposium, which was convened by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pretrial Justice Institute, explicitly refers back to a similar gathering convened by Robert Kennedy in 1964 that was instigated by Herb Sturz and the Vera Institute of Justice.

Much of the conversation at the symposium was devoted to assessing the current state of bail reform in the US. While there was some acknowledgment of the good things that have happened in the field since '64, the general appraisal seems to be that we have hit a wall in terms of pretrial justice. Of particular concern is the sheer volume of jail admissions (12.8 million per year, compared to only 748,000 prison admissions) and the fact that on any given day, 61 percent of the people in jail in the US are being held there pretrial. The numbers suggest that despite the drop in crime over the past 15 years, there has been no proportionate drop in the jail population.

I'm curious to see what comes out of the symposium. It was certainly impressive to see the hierarchy of the US Department of Justice, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Laurie Robinson, make such a strong statement in support of bail reform and pretrial release. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be a lot of money to throw at the problem and whatever solutions emerge will inevitably have to be local, rather than national, in nature.

Still, I left the conference feeling energized about the topic. In fact, it seems like bail reform is every where I turn these days. Yesterday, the New York Times ran an op-ed arguing that pretrial release can help California tackle its prison problems. And my friends over at the Vera Institute of Justice have embarked on an ambitious effort to create a pretrial agency as part of their effort to strengthen the criminal justice system in New Orleans.