Thursday, November 29, 2012

"I'm Your Mother"

Last night was a special evening in central Brooklyn: a celebration of Ife Charles, who has recently been promoted from being the deputy director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center to assisting with all of our gun violence prevention programs citywide.  The standing-room-only crowd packed into the storefront mediation center testified to the remarkable breadth of Ife's influence: young and old, black and white, Christian and Jewish, Brooklyn and non-Brooklyn...Ife has touched the lives of a diverse group of people.  

I'm proud to count myself among that number.  Part of what has sustained me over the nearly 20 years that I have been a part of the Center for Court Innovation is having the opportunity to work alongside people that I admire.  Ife's integrity, her strength in the face of adversity, her commitment to improving New York neighborhoods, and her willingness to laugh at herself -- these are all qualities that I strive to emulate and that have helped make the Center for Court Innovation a great place to work. 

There were lots of great moments last night: a video tribute to Ife from her daughter, proclamations from the City Council and other elected officials, etc., but my favorite was when Amy Ellenbogen told a story about Ife intervening before two rival groups of teenagers could get into a fight on the street. "Who are you?" one of the kids asked, challenging Ife's right to step in.  "I'm your mother...and your mother...and your mother..." she said, pointing to each of the potential combatants in turn.   The world would be a better place if there were more parents like Ife.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Court Reform on Trial

One of the more enjoyable assignments I have had of late was provided to me by the good folks at Quid Pro Books, who asked me to write the foreword for a new edition of Malcolm Feeley's Court Reform on Trial: Why Simple Solutions Fail.  I was flattered by the ask.  I am a big fan of Feeley's work, which also includes the classic The Process Is The Punishment.

It was a pleasure to be given an excuse to re-read Court Reform on Trial, which was one of the few books that directly influenced Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform.  As a teaser to encourage sales of the reprint when it becomes available, I offer this small taste of Feeley's prose from Court Reform on Trial:

"Whatever one's goals, there is a tendency to expect too much of the courts.  Higher standards can lead to improvements, but exaggerated expectations can also foster disillusionment...Courts cannot solve the problem of crime or event make a significant dent in it.  Thus, in a very real sense the courts -- charged with handling society's failures -- will always fail.  What the family, the church, the workplace, and the school cannot do, neither can the courts."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holiday Momentum

It feels like we are heading into the holidays with a healthy dose of momentum at the Center for Court Innovation.  Last week was a busy one across the organization.

For example, our youth justice team organized a training session for local principals and teachers who are interested in starting school-based youth courts.  (The above photo is taken from the event, which took place in our midtown headquarters).

Meanwhile, our tribal team brought a group of Navajo leaders to Red Hook to train local residents in how to create a peacemaking program at the Justice Center.

The Midtown Community Court hosted a celebration honoring the men who had graduated from the Court's fathering program.

We also hosted a training session for the Juvenile Justice Corps, our AmeriCorps program.  We've been running an AmeriCorps program since the initiative was launched by President Clinton's administration.    The Corps members have become an essential part of the daily operations of many of our demonstration projects; they were particularly helpful in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as we attempted to restore Red Hook.  This year's cohort, which began their service year in October, is particularly impressive.  I look forward to seeing what they will accomplish.

And this is not to mention a series of meetings designed to improve the ways that we work with defendants and victims suffering from trauma, a visit from the chief judge of Chicago's criminal court, our work behind-the-scenes to help the New York courts establish a fund for victims of Hurricane Sandy, etc. etc. etc.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Supporting Brooklyn Parents

Today we celebrated the 4th graduating class at the Kings County Parent Support Program, an initiative in Family Court that seeks to give non-custodial parents the services and structure they need to make child support payments and become effective parents to their children.

As is the case with so many of the projects that we help to implement, the Parent Support Program is the product of vibrant partnership involving multiple agencies, all of which were well-represented at the graduation today, including the New York City Family Court and the City of New York's Human Resources Administration.

There were two highlights from the graduation from my perspective.  The first was the keynote speech by Vicki Turetsky who is the commissioner of the Office of Child Support Enforcement at the US Department of Health and Human Services.  As Support Magistrate Nicholas Palos said in his remarks, Turetsky helped to inspire the development of the Parent Support Program three years ago, so it was great to have her participate in the celebration.

The other highlight was hearing directly from the 24 men who were graduating today.  More remarkable than any single thing that anyone said was the atmosphere in the courtroom.  Going to court can be a stressful experience and child support cases are often highly contentious.  Yet here was a courtroom full of smiling, proud fathers who interacted easily with support magistrate Palos and the rest of the court team.  All of them had worked hard to reduce their arrears and contribute to the well-being of their kids.  We haven't performed a formal evaluation of the program, but I'd be surprised if it didn't provide more evidence of the importance of procedural justice and treating litigants with dignity and respect.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday in Red Hook

Just back from a few hours in Red Hook.  I think I have to stop going there on beautiful, sunny afternoons -- I fear my impressions may be overly optimistic based on the weather.  

I spent some time today at the Justice Center, where they have moved from trash removal to demolition.  The crucial issue at this point is restoring electricity to the building.  While the power is out, much of our staff has been re-deployed to the courts in downtown Brooklyn, along with Judge Calabrese. 

As I was touring the Justice Center, we also had crews of Center staffers delivering food and surveying public housing tenants about their medical needs.  This included a team from Brownsville, in a nice bit of inter-project partnership.  

After leaving the Justice Center, I visited the Red Hook branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which is being used as a warming center for those without heat.  There were about a dozen folks there reading, talking on the phone, chatting with one another.   I was particularly heartened to hear that the water had been restored to the public housing development and that the hallways had been cleaned and sanitized.  Still, the bottom line is that there is no power or heat in the Houses and no firm date on when they will return.  

The striking thing about Red Hook at the moment is just how much activity there is.  Normally, it is a pretty quiet neighborhood.  But between the volunteers from across the city, the government workers who have been deployed to the area, and all of the home owners and business owners who have to clean out their buildings, there are dozens of people on streets where typically you encounter next to no one.  

One such person was D___, a guy I know who lives on Van Brunt Street. He showed me his building, where the tide had completely submerged the basement and two feet of the first floor.  He had succeeded in cleaning and drying out the wet areas but was frustrated because he was unable to cut the red tape necessary to get electricity back in his building.  Still, he was in generally good spirits, acknowledging that his problems were "first-world" problems -- "loss of money, not loss of life."

We've set up a donation page for those who would like to contribute to the restoration of the Justice Center.  Click here to donate.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Ghosts of Mississippi

One of the small benefits of being housebound for much of last week was that I had a chance to catch up on my television viewing.  One of the highlights was watching Ghosts of Ole Miss, a documentary that is part of ESPN's ongoing "30 for 30" series.  The film looks at the events of the fall of 1962 at the University of Mississippi, which featured an undefeated football team and the chaos that ensued when James Meredith became the first black student ever enrolled at the University.

Ghosts of Ole Miss isn't a perfect film by any means -- the two halves of the story never quite come together (the football stars don't have much to add about Meredith) and the filmmaker made the unfortunate choice to rely on stylized reenactments of crucial scenes -- but it makes for compelling viewing nonetheless.  In truth, the integration of Ole Miss is such an extraordinary and dramatic moment in American history that it would be hard to make a film about it that wasn't riveting.  Meredith's dignity and courage in the face of violence, the naked racism of the Ole Miss students and Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, the political machinations of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy...the story has lots of different facets.

I was particularly drawn to Ghosts of Ole Miss because I wrote my undergraduate thesis at Wesleyan University on James Meredith.  Entitled "A Harbinger of Change: The Meredith March Against Fear and the Decline of the Civil Rights Movement," the paper looked at Meredith's decision to walk across Mississippi in 1966 -- a march that became a major civil rights event after Meredith was shot by a would-be assassin.

As part of my research, I actually corresponded directly with Meredith in November 1988.  I spent a half an hour just now looking through my papers trying to find his letter to me.  No luck.  If I were truly intrepid, I could find my letter to Meredith, which, according to a Google search, is contained in his archives at Ole Miss.  I made one pilgrimage to Oxford more than 25 years ago.  Maybe I'll make another at some point to visit my letter.

UPDATE: Another half an hour of searching through old shoe boxes turned up Meredith's handwritten letter to me.  Meredith graciously directed me to a Newsweek story on the March Against Fear while flatly denying that he was ever part of the civil rights movement (he must have been responding to some question that I had posed).   He also included several news clips and public letters that articulated his opinions about the issues of the day, some of which were quite bizarre.  I'm glad I found Meredith's correspondence and resolve to put in a safer place going forward.  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Sunny Saturday

Better news to report from my trip to Red Hook today.  Maybe it was because it is the weekend and the sun is shining.  Or maybe it was the rumors that power would be restored to the Red Hook Houses tomorrow. Or maybe the relief efforts are starting to make a difference. Whatever the case, it seemed to me that there was a more positive buzz in the neighborhood today.

Walking through the community, there were numerous signs of life and spirit -- public housing tenants using an AT&T truck to charge their phones, dozens of volunteers assembling for duty at the Red Hook Initiative, National Guard personnel distributing food to a small and orderly line of needy residents at Coffey Park, Defonte's Sandwich Shop open for business using an emergency generator, business owners along Van Brunt Street clearing out the debris from their storefronts, etc.

There was also activity at the Justice Center, where a small team of contractors was working under the watchful eye of a supervisor from the City's Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) and two court officers.  The cleanup effort will continue on Monday and will probably take a couple of weeks to complete.   There are numerous details to work out before the doors of the Justice Center can be re-opened and the courtroom can begin hearing cases again.  But at least we have taken the first steps down the road toward recovery.  

The photo at the top of this post is from the front door of the Justice Center.  And the photo below is from the food delivery efforts in the Gowanus Houses.

 For more on Red Hook, check out these photos from WNYC or this article from the Village Voice, which quotes a (misidentified) Viviana Gordon from the Red Hook Community Justice Center. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Red Hook in Recovery

Mixed news to report from my trip to Red Hook today.  As previously reported, the Justice Center is in pretty bad shape.  The basement floor, which contains our computer lab, youth programs, holding cells, storage area, and court officer space will have to be almost completely re-built -- the water came to about chest level, destroying all files, furniture, and computers.

The neighborhood also seemed in a fragile state.  There is still no power, the weather is getting colder, and frustration is rising among both residents and business owners.  In the absence of hard news about when the electricity would go back on, how food would be disbursed, and what monies would be available to support restoration, rumors were swirling through the community.

On the positive side, we had a crew of a couple dozen Center for Court Innovation staffers in Red Hook to help out with recovery efforts.  When the National Guard arrived with food, our team was on hand to distribute supplies to those in need in public housing.  They will be at it again tomorrow morning.

Here are a couple more photos from my walk through the neighborhood.