Thursday, June 28, 2012

Talking It Through

Last night in Harlem was the formal premiere of the Youth Justice Board's short film about police-teen relations, "Talking It Through."   The film was the culmination of more than a year's worth of work, which included focus groups, interviews with a variety of justice officials, and a survey of local young people.  The teen members of the Youth Justice Board came to the conclusion that miscommunication and misunderstanding between police officers and young people was a crucial obstacle to addressing youth crime in places like Brownsville.  In an effort to jump start a civil conversation about police-teen relations, the Board created "Talking It Through." 

What I like best about the short film is that it manages to touch on difficult issues like race and stop-and-frisk in a spirit of openness and comity rather than recrimination.  Last night's premiere at the Maysles Cinema certainly embodied this approach.  During the question-and-answer segment following the screening, there was a healthy back-and-forth between the teenagers on the Youth Justice Board, police officers, and other justice officials in attendance.   With any luck, "Talking It Through" will stimulate similar conversations in other settings for many months to come.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What's Going On

One of the many pleasures of working at the Center for Court Innovation is the diversity of the work we do.  To give you just a sense of what I mean, here are four links that were sent to me, all from this morning:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Busy Times

This month has been chock-a-block with Center for Court Innovation events.  I've reported on a few that I have attended, but the truth is that I have missed a bunch too, including a Harlem Youth Court graduation, a Greenpoint Youth Court celebration featuring NYC Probation Commissioner Vinny Schiraldi, a Midtown Community Court event at the Museum of Modern Art featuring artwork created by former prostitution defendants, and a Red Hook Community Justice Center event at the New School.

One event that I did manage to attend last week was a farewell party for Justine Van Straaten, who is leaving the Center after 8 years.  Justine was a key addition to the Center.  The Center's roots are in the world of criminal justice, but over time we have begun to make a deeper and deeper institutional investment in Family Court as well.  Hiring Justine was an important step in this process.  Over the years, she has worked closely with the administrators of the New York City Family Court on a range of reform ideas.  We will miss Justine, but we intend to continue to work with Family Court for many years to come. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Friendly Critics/Critical Friends

I've known Rob Allen, one of the foremost experts on prison reform in England, for more than a decade.  He's a good guy.  He's a smart guy.  I like him.   I think he likes me.  But I've always known that Rob was just a wee bit skeptical of our work at the Center for Court Innovation.  I like to think of him as a friendly critic.  Over the years, both in private and in public, he has consistently pointed out holes in our arguments, flaws in our reasoning, and weaknesses in our approaches.

I bring all of this up because I saw Rob this morning on one of his irregular visits to New York.  As part of his trip, Rob asked to visit one of our projects, so I hooked him up with a trip to Newark Community Solutions.   I was a little nervous about what his reaction might be, but if his blog is any indication, the visit went well.  (And yes, I did notice the criticisms implicit in the piece.  But that's the joy of having critical friends -- it helps keep you honest and focused on self-improvement.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fighting Truancy in Harlem

Another night, another great Center for Court Innovation event.  Actually, two great Center events: the first anniversary of the Brownsville Youth Court and the latest graduation ceremony for our Attendance Achievement Program in Harlem.  Alas, I couldn't go to both.  After flipping a coin, I landed in Harlem.

The Attendance Achievement Program is our effort to forge a new response to chronic absenteeism at the middle school level.  Participants in the program, which works collaboratively (and intensively) with two local schools, receive an individualized plan to improve their attendance as well as links to needed supports.  They are also asked to come to school on a regular basis for special meetings with a retired judge (in this case, our old friend Eileen Koretz, formerly of the Midtown Community Court) and program staff to review progress, make adjustments, and receive encouragement.

Tonight, we honored more than a dozen young people who had graduated from the program and improved their attendance significantly.  Keynote speaker Kai Smith (a former Center staffer) offered an inspirational message based on his life experience growing up in East Harlem, falling into a life of crime,  and (eventually) turning his life around.  His theme was "never give up," but the words that resonated most powerfully with me were: "I was smart and didn't even know it."  It took 16 years in prison for Kai to figure it out.   Today, he's pursuing a PhD.  

How many other smart kids are out there in a place like East Harlem, their potential untapped?   Would the existence of the Attendance Achievement Program have made a difference in Kai's life were we around back in the 1970s when he was growing up?   Will the improved attendance of the kids graduating tonight be sustained throughout high school?  Impossible to know the answers, of course.

But there was no doubting the palpable pride of the graduates and their families tonight.  I left Harlem feeling like the Attendance Program had put an important building block in place for these families that they can build on in the future.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Thousand Small Sanities

Yesterday, the Centre for Justice Innovation, our affiliate in the United Kingdom, released A Thousand Small Sanities: Crime Control Lessons from New York, an effort to look at what's gone right in terms of criminal justice policy in New York in recent years and extract potential lessons for England and Wales.  It is the first of several publications that the Centre plans to publish in the coming months.  Stay tuned...

Center Honors

Great event last night to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT): wonderful space in Tribeca, great food, and, best of all, a worthwhile crop of awardees, highlighted by the Center for Court  Innovation's Liberty Aldrich.   And the night before, the Bowery Residents' Committee honored former Center director John Feinblatt.   Always a pleasure to support strong organizations and to see good work (and good people) rewarded.

Monday, June 11, 2012

City Council Hearing

This morning, two committees of the New York City Council (juvenile justice and fire/criminal justice services) held a joint hearing devoted to looking at how youth courts are diverting young people out of the justice system. 

The hearing began with testimony by Ana Bermudez, the deputy commissioner of the New York City Deparment of Probation, who said that Probation had referred nearly 400 young people to youth court in 2011 and is on pace to exceed that number in 2012.  Bermudez went on to say that more than 90 percent of the referrals had completed their sanctions as ordered.

Bermudez was followed by a panel from the Center for Court Innovation that included several people whose lives had been touched by youth court.  This included a respondent from the Greenpoint Youth Court who became a member of the youth court after completing her sentence.  Her remarks were echoed by her mother, who said that she lacked the resources as a single mom to provide her daughter with the training and access to opportunities that the youth court could offer.  

In a similar vein, a youth court member from Brownsville testified that the youth court had helped her to grow as a person and become more civic-minded: "we are our brother's keeper," she concluded.

Sabrina Carter, who served as a youth court member in Red Hook in 2002 and now helps to oversee the program, talked about her aspirations to become a lawyer and stated that the "youth court opened up a whole new life for me."

When we started the Red Hook youth court more than 14 years ago, most of the cases were referred by local police precincts.  Today, the six youth courts we operate in New York City (Harlem, Red Hook, Greenpoint, Staten Island, Jamaica, Brownsville) receive most of their referrals from Probation.  The youth courts also handle select cases involving 16 and 17 year olds referred from Criminal Court as well; in this way, the youth courts are helping to support New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's push to rethink juvenile justice. 

Nancy Fishman, who oversees our youth justice work, testified about our efforts to work with former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye to spread the youth court model to schools as an alternative to suspension.  She also talked about the need to guard against net-widening and to document the impacts of youth court in a more thorough way.

Throughout the hearing, numerous City Council members expressed their support for youth court:

Sara Gonzalez, the chair of the juvenile justice committee: "Red Hook Justice [Center] has been a deterrent to crime in its neighborhood."

Daniel Halloran (R, Queens): "Congratulations on a great program.  Keep up the good work."

Fernando Cabrera (D, Bronx): "I'm shocked we don't have a youth court in the Bronx...I'm all for it."

I left the hearing feeling great about the track record we have developed with youth court as well as the prospects for future expansion.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Transforming Lives

Yesterday was a day spent thinking about prison.  It started with a breakfast hosted by the Osborne Association, one of New York's oldest and best alternative-to-incarceration programs.  It was a great event, highlighted by an incredibly moving presentation by a 17 year old kid who had benefitted from Osborne's programs while his mom was in prison.   Liz Gaynes, Osborne's executive director, also spoke beautifully about the importance of empathy for those who are incarcerated.

As wonderful as the Osborne breakfast was, it was topped later that evening when I attended the latest graduation exercises for our reentry court at the Harlem Community Justice Center.  Thirty-six men and women received certificates of completion along with hugs from administrative law judge Terry Saunders.  Eugene Schneeberg, the director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships for the U.S. Department of Justice, offered a keynote address that was alternately funny and inspiring, drawing on his own experience growing up without a father in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

But, as always, the highlight for me was hearing directly from the program graduates, many of whom had spent decades behind bars.  I'm always interested to hear how they describe the program and why they think the reentry court made a difference for them.  Here are some selected quotes that I scribbled down in my program:

"They gave me the push I needed."

"They treated me like a human being not a number."

"They gave me tools here and I used them."

"I got support."

"I learned discipline and responsibility."

I found this testimony to be a reassuring confirmation that the participants in our programs share our sense of what the key ingredients are: a combination of punishment and help, a focus on procedural justice, an emphasis on neighborhood-based service delivery, etc.

Sandwiched in between the Osborne breakfast and the Harlem graduation was a farewell party for Raye Barbieri, who is leaving the Center to become deputy commissioner at the City's Administration for Children's Services.  A busy day devoted to thinking about reentry was a fitting way to say goodbye to Raye, who always brought not only enormous energy to her work but a real sense of caring for those who needed a second chance in life.  We will miss her.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Failure and the Miami Heat

It's June, which means that the NBA Playoffs are winding to a conclusion.  Last night, the Miami Heat lost to the Boston Celtics, putting them on the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the Heat, a disturbing pattern is starting to emerge: each year, they start the playoffs in spectacular fashion and then they seem to hit a wall and collapse.  When this happened last year, I found it difficult not to join the chorus blaming LeBron James.  This time around, I feel like coach Eric Spoelstra has to take a good deal of the heat (no pun intended).

(It is true that LeBron hasn't been flawless in the clutch in this series, but generally he has played at an extraordinarily high level, increasing his scoring and rebounding from the regular season and guarding the opposition's best offensive player almost every night.)

In general, I think coaches tend to take too much responsibility when things go wrong in the NBA.  The truth is that they get paid a lot less than the players and thus are easier to fire.  Moreover, Spoelstra seems like a likable guy, not to mention a good story: he's the only Filipino coach in the league and by all accounts he worked his way up the ladder quickly by dint of hard work and talent.

Having said this, I find myself utterly befuddled by the Heat's inability to run anything resembling a proficient offense down the stretch in close games.  Despite having arguably two of the five best players in the world, they just don't execute very well.  And yes, the role players deserve some of the blame for this: guys like Mike Miller, James Jones, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers just aren't making enough of the wide open 3 pointers they are getting.  But there doesn't seem to be any motion or creativity in the play-calling.

One reason for the lack of movement off the ball in crunch time might be that Spoelstra is over-playing LeBron.  Last night, he didn't take out LeBron a single time in the entire second half.  This was Spoelstra's approach last year too when things got tight.  As powerful as he is, even Lebron needs rest sometimes.  Contrast Spoelstra's approach with that of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Celtics, who always manages to find time for Kevin Garnett to rest even though the Celtics are demonstrably worse when KG sits.

But my biggest gripe with Spoelstra is that his team just seems tight.  There is a general nervousness about the Heat that you can feel even watching on TV.  I can't remember the last time I saw a Heat player smile.  Spoelstra obviously works hard and takes his job seriously.  But my cheap, amateur analysis is that perhaps he takes it too seriously and has unwittingly created an atmosphere where his team is worried about failing.  And it is the rare person indeed who performs at his best when he is afraid of making a mistake.  I daresay that there are lessons to be learned here for leaders in any field.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hits from the Blogs

I spent a few moments yesterday morning helping to welcome the latest cohort of summer interns (most of them law students) to the Center for Court Innovation.  It offered me a chance to reflect on my own experiences as an intern.  Thanks in part to experiences I had as an intern in college, I decided not to pursue a career in journalism or academia.   A few years later, during my Coro fellowship year, I did an internship at the Fund for the City of New York to help with the planning of the Midtown Community Court.  That was real turning point for me, setting me off down a path that ultimately led to the Center for Court Innovation.

The Center has grown enormously in stature and size since I served that fateful internship.  One sign of this growth is that we now maintain no less than 13 blogs, not including this one.   Is this too many?  Too few?  How does one measure the success of a blog?  And how uniform in content and appearance should our blogs be?  These are some of the questions that I am currently struggling to answer.

While I'd like to see us continue to get more sophisticated about how we use blogs (and Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other means of dissemination), we already have a wealth of interesting material on our blogs.  For example, in recent weeks, SOS Crown Heights blogged about Arts to End Violence, the Red Hook Community Justice Center offered great photos of a new mural project, our AmeriCorps program provided a glimpse of a community project designed to promote summer reading among young people, and our Youth@Center blog launched a series of interviews performed by teen participants in our youth programs.