Sunday, January 29, 2012


On Friday, we had a big meeting at the Center to discuss the technology application that is used by many of our operating projects to manage cases and track compliance. It could have been a contentious meeting. After all, it brought together people from different departments (research, technology, administration, operations) to discuss frustrations with the information system. And certainly there were moments of disagreement. But the spirit in the room was respectful and non-defensive and collaborative.

It made me think about the recent New Yorker piece by Jonah Lehrer on teamwork. Lehrer suggests that traditional brainstorming, in which individuals are taught not to critique each other's contributions, doesn't really work.

How do you establish an institutional culture that encourages creativity? How do you mold teams that put the talents of individual stars to use for the greater good of the whole? I'm not so arrogant to believe that I know the answers to these questions, but I do think about them a lot.

Here are my three favorite (sports) teams of all time:

1991-92 Washington Redskins: A truly dominant team that finished 17-2 and beat its opponents by an average of nearly 3 touchdowns a game on the way to winning Super Bowl XXVI. I had the pleasure of going to the game in person since it happened to be played in my wife's home state of Minnesota. While this team deserves to be remembered alongside the '86 Bears, '08 Patriots, '90 Niners, and the '93 Cowboys as the best of my lifetime, I fear that they will never receive their due because they lacked superstar players. Instead of Manning or Brady or Montana or Favre, they were led by Mark Rypien. In all honesty, Rypien was nowhere near as good as these hall-of-fame QBs. In fact, he was kind of goofy and awkward. But for one season, he was truly great, particularly when it came to throwing deep to Gary Clark. Go back and check the videotape if you doubt me.

2004-5 Arsenal: In 2003-04, Arsenal went through the entire league unbeaten, the first and only time that's ever been done in England. And while I have deep affection for that team, I find that it is the following year that sticks in my mind. Arsenal brought back basically the same squad in 04-05, but added two great young players to the mix: Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. While they won the FA Cup, they finished 2nd in the league and were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the early stages of the Champions League. So I think you could argue that they probably were under-achievers in the end. Still, they played unbelievably beautiful football and had great chemistry on the pitch with players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera seemingly reading each other's minds. They also moved from defense to offense as quickly as any team I can remember. The highlight for me was the home victory over Middlesborough, when they somehow managed to go 3-1 down only to score 4 brilliant goals in the last quarter of the game to transform a nail-biter into a laugher.

1998-99 New York Knicks: This was the Knicks team that finished 8th during the regular season and just squeaked into the playoffs before going on a magical run that ended with defeat to the Spurs in the NBA Finals. The appeal of this team was that it was a classic underdog story, succeeding in the face of long odds. Patrick Ewing was their best player, but he was often injured so the team had to rely on Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell for points. (This also gave the team a comeback angle, since Sprewell had recently been suspended for physically assaulting a coach and was viewed as a pariah in many quarters.) The thing that tipped the scales and made me love this Knicks team was their coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who was almost unfailingly smart and funny in his interactions with the media. In a weird way, Van Gundy embodied that Knicks team: he was underrated by many (including the management of the Knicks, who wanted to fire him) because he wasn't a big-time player when he was younger and he looked more like Woody Allen than Pat Riley. Still, at the end of the year, there was no denying his quality.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Run Up to Community Justice 2012

We are less than a week away from Community Justice 2012, the international conference of community courts that we are convening in Washington DC along with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Featured speakers include drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson. I'm looking forward to a number of the presentations, including an address by David Weisburd, who recently won the Stockholm Prize for Criminology. Weisburd writes extensively about the relationship between crime and place. While most of his work deals with policing, I think it is directly relevant to community courts.

Response to the conference has been encouragingly strong: we had to close registration more than a week ago and now have a waiting list of about a hundred people. I'm sure I'll write more about the conference next week.

In the meantime, here are links to two articles that I enjoyed this week:

Harvard Business Review blog that argues that Governor Cuomo has over-reacted in his effort to curb non-profit salaries.

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker reviews a handful of recent criminal justice books, with a focus on American correctional policy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dignity and Respect

Two great judges came to visit us this morning: Matthew D'Emic from Brooklyn and Marcia Hirsch from Queens. Both are long-time friends of the Center for Court Innovation -- D'Emic from his work in domestic violence court and mental health court and Hirsch from her work in drug court and mental health court. Their appearance at our monthly staff meeting was a somewhat rare opportunity to hear directly from judges about the joys and challenges of their work.

What struck me was that Hirsch and D'Emic clearly have different personalities on the bench. To give just one small example, D'Emic spoke about how he frequently uses bench conferences to communicate directly with defendants, while Hirsch said she almost never engages in the practice.

For all their differences in approach and temperament, what D'Emic and Hirsch both share is an outspoken commitment to treating each defendant with dignity and respect. In this way, they embody the work that we have been doing on effective courtroom communication and procedural justice. Speaking of which, we have created a new area on our website devoted to the topic. Check it out.

Assessing Risks and Needs

The highlight of my day yesterday was a meeting with some of our friends at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and the National Drug Court Institute. One of the things we talked about was the research that Doug Marlowe has been doing about risk and needs assessment and the importance of placing offenders in appropriate interventions. (There are dangers in putting low-risk/low-need individuals in intensive treatment modalities just as there are dangers in putting high-risk/high-need individuals in low-intensity interventions.) For those who are interested, I encourage you to check out Marlowe's work, which is consistent with a lot of what our research team at the Center for Court Innovation has been producing of late.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Budget Season in New York

Budget season is upon us in earnest here in New York. Everything is very much in a state of flux as we wait for negotiations to unfold between Governor Cuomo and the legislature. It is way too soon to say whether the budget for the upcoming state fiscal year will be good, bad or indifferent for us.

There were at least two encouraging pieces of news coming out of Governor Cuomo's office this week. The first, as the Center for New York City Affairs reports, is the state is continuing its effort to reduce the use of incarceration for juveniles and is interested in creating new alternative programs for New York City kids in particular. Also of note is the news that Governor Cuomo has made favorable noises about the judiciary's budget submission -- this wasn't the case last year.

A few other quick hits:

The Red Hook Star-Revue reports on the Justice Center's new program to serve 16 and 17 year old criminal defendants.

The National Law Journal on the spread of community courts in Washington DC, featuring Julius Lang from the Center. (Behind a pay wall, I'm afraid.)

Corrections Sentencing 2020 blog on Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform.

Planting Seeds of Optimism

If you missed it this weekend, here is a link to a New York Times story on Brownsville. The title of the article accurately conveys its substance: "Where Optimism Feels Out of Reach.” This passage is emblematic:

So many of the civic successes heralded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg...might have happened in Lithuania for all the effect they have had (or could have) on the lives of people in Brownsville, in northeastern Brooklyn. Even the mayor’s claim that the city is exceedingly healthy and safe meets grim rebuttal in Brownsville: the neighborhood maintains the highest infant mortality rate in the city, a rate about the same as Malaysia’s. While the murder rate in the crime-ridden Morrisania section of the Bronx, where the mayor delivered his speech, fell 25 percent from 1998 to 2011, in Brownsville over the same period, it declined not at all.

We've been working for a little more than a year in Brownsville, attempting to lay the groundwork for a community court that will tackle some of the conditions described in the Times article. Here are a few quick links to various items that describe what we are up to in Brownsville:

New York Juvenile Justice Corps blog on "Safe Surrender"

Brownsville Youth Court

Neighborhood probation in Brownsville

New York City Cleanup crews in Brownsville

Community survey of Brownsville residents

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chicago Policy Review

Here's a link to an interview I recently did with the Chicago Policy Review. Thanks to Katy Welter for making me sound reasonably articulate.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

News and Notes from the New Year

I'm back again and ready to blog after a short break spent in Minnesota visiting my in-laws and entertaining my brother's family in Brooklyn. It feels like the new year is off to a good and productive start here at the Center for Court Innovation (famous last words, I know). Here are a few highlights from my in-box at the moment:

Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes talks about his vision for Brownsville, including plans for a new community court.

Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson steps down as the head of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs.

The Crime Report counts down the ten most important criminal justice stories of 2011.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance hosts a webinar on community justice featuring speakers from the Center for Court Innovation and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Finally, I managed to spend an hour yesterday reading a scholarly essay by Tracey Meares and Dan Kahan entitled "Laws and (Norms of) Order in the Inner City." Meares and Kahan write persuasively (at least to my mind) about how the justice system might make a positive impact on the culture and social organization of crime-plagued communities. I hope it is not just self-flattery, but I think that the work we are doing in places like Red Hook, Harlem, and Brownsville actually puts a lot of Meares and Kahan's ideas into practice.