Sunday, December 22, 2013

Managing Transition

Our final staff meeting of the year, which took place on Friday, was devoted to a session called "Ask Greg Anything."  The first question I received was about managing transition.  We are currently going through several at once.  The biggest is obviously the transition from Bloomberg to de Blasio as mayor of New York City.  But just as important to us as an institution are Ken Thompson replacing Charles J. Hynes as district attorney in Brooklyn and Barry Kamins replacing Judy Harris Kluger as the chief of policy and planning at the Office of Court Administration.

Change can be unsettling, to be sure.  And with Bloomberg exiting stage left, we are also seeing highly-placed Center for Court Innovation alumni like Amanda Burden and John Feinblatt move out of city government and on to new endeavors.   Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future.  If the campaign season is any indication, both de Blasio and Thompson will be interested in thinking about enhancing the legitimacy of the justice system in the eyes of New Yorkers.

As it happens, this is one of our institutional sweet spots.   Our community-based programs are testing a variety of ways -- some formal, some informal -- to bring justice agencies together with local residents.  This ranges from convening offender notification forums with the NYPD and the Brooklyn DA's Office in Brownsville to working with parole officers in Harlem to ease the transition of individuals returning from state prison to creating a host of less structured vehicles for interaction (youth courts, community advisory boards, summer baseball leagues, etc).   I'm eager to see if we can do more of this kind of work going forward -- and help others to do the same.

While the transitions to a new mayor and a new Brooklyn District Attorney are being well covered in the local media, I would be remiss if I didn't say a few words about the departure of Judy Harris Kluger, who is leaving the court system to run Sanctuary for Families, one of the leading domestic violence organizations in New York.  Judy has been one of our key allies for two decades.  She was the first judge at the Midtown Community Court and then went on to occupy several important positions at the Office of Court Administration, including overseeing all of New York City's criminal courts and supervising problem-solving courts across New York State.  In all of these roles, she has used her influence to do good in the world -- and done so with grace and intelligence. While we will miss her voice at the Office of Court Administration, the one consolation is that she is going to an agency that we work with all of the time, so she will still be part of our world.  I wish her nothing but success going forward.  And, in the likely event that this is my final post of 2013, I wish you nothing but health and happiness in the new year.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Community Justice in Red Hook (and Beyond)

I wish I could give you a detailed, first-hand report from last week's announcement by mayor-elect Bill de Blasio that he had selected Bill Bratton to be the next commissioner of the New York Police Department.  Alas, at the moment that the press conference was taking place at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, I was stuck in Scotland, the victim of gale force winds that grounded my flight out of Edinburgh.  So I had the somewhat strange experience of following the event online and via Twitter and email.

Despite the sense of dislocation, my dominant emotion was one of pride.  If you listen to the mayor-elect (the New York Times has a video of the entire event here), he talks at some length at the start about the symbolism of holding the announcement at the Justice Center, a project that embodies the values of strategically reaching out to local residents and engaging communities in "doing justice."

New York is not the only place that is interested in these ideas, as my trip to the United Kingdom indicates.  I spent time in both Scotland and England.  In both places, there is real momentum toward  criminal justice reform.  In Scotland, the government has released an RFP to local criminal justice authorities seeking to encourage them to create problem-solving courts in 2014.  To help educate the local judiciary about the concept, the Scottish Judicial Institute organized a seminar that brought New York State Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti together with a number of key court administrators from across Scotland.  I thought it was a productive session; Judge Prudenti was able to communicate that problem-solving courts have helped the New York courts accomplish a number of important goals.  For a more detailed look at what is going on in Scotland, check out this article: Courting Favour: Problem-solving court model slowly taking shape in Scotland.

Meanwhile, in England, the Centre for Justice Innovation has been busy advancing the idea of neighborhood justice panels -- restorative sessions that engage local citizens in providing meaningful diversion options for low-level offenders.  For more on the model, check out the Centre's great look at court reform across England and Wales, Better Courts: Cutting Crime Through Court Innovation.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Just for One Day

This week is all about Red Hook.  As I got on the subway this morning, I was handed a copy of Metro New York, the free paper for subway riders.  Today's cover story: "Red Hook Community Justice Center Delivers Solutions In Lieu of Judgement."  A nice read on my morning commute.

I was taking the train to east midtown to attend the Robin Hood Foundation's annual Heroes Breakfast. Alongside several other impressive organizations (Hometown Heroes, Success Academy Charter Schools, the Restaurant Opportunity Center), the Red Hook Community Justice Center was honored for its efforts to change the lives of criminal defendants.  Judge Alex Calabrese spoke eloquently about how Red Hook's approach differs from standard operating procedure in the courts, saying that it was his goal to send kids in Red Hook to college instead of jail.

Judge Calabrese was joined on the podium by Tina Dixons, a former client who spoke about how she got her life together after decades of abuse and addiction.  It was one of those "you-could-hear-a-pin-drop" speeches -- hundreds of business leaders on the edge of their seats listening to Tina talk about how she triumphed over adversity.  I already know her story and I was moved.  I can only imagine how it must have felt to hear her for the first time.  Tina ended on a real grace note, encouraging her audience to pause every day to savor the beauty of life.  She received one of the heartiest and most well-deserved standing ovations I've ever seen.

For more on Tina and the Red Hook Community Justice Center, it is worth taking a look at this video, which Robin Hood made as part of the Heroes breakfast.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Moving New York City Forward in 2014 (and Beyond)

I spent the greater part of Monday at Moving New York City Forward in 2014 and Beyond, a conference organized by New York City Council Member Brad Lander and Professor John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY's Graduate Center.  The goal of the conference was to help flesh out a progressive government agenda for New York that focuses in particular on the problem of inequality.

I found it a mostly stimulating event.  There was a palpable buzz of excitement in the air about Bill de Blasio's victory last week in the New York City mayor's race.  While I worry that no mayor on earth will be able to meet the expectations that de Blasio has engendered among the advocates, academics, foundation executives, union officials, and non-profit leaders who made up the bulk of the attendees at the conference, I think he has already done something positive by sparking conversations like the one on Monday, which touched on issues of employment, education, and neighborhood development in a searching and thoughtful manner.

I spoke on a panel about participatory government.  While I talked mostly about the Center for Court Innovation's approach to partnering with government, I couldn't resist saying a few words about the National Center for State Courts' evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was formally released to the world yesterday.  (The photo above is taken from the groundbreaking ceremony in Red Hook.  Note the broken windows behind the dignitaries.)  Happily, the study documents that the Justice Center has largely succeeded in accomplishing its three primary goals: reducing reoffending, cutting the use of jail, and improving court-community relations.  The authors of the study argue that the active ingredient at Red Hook was procedural justice -- that by improving defendants' perceptions of the justice system, the Justice Center helped encourage compliance with the law and positive social norms.

Unusually for us, we are going to spend a couple of weeks intensively trying to spread the word about the Red Hook results.  Our motives are both mercenary and altruistic.  I think the results are obviously good for the Center for Court Innovation -- we helped to conceive, plan, and implement a project that has achieved some difficult goals and we are proud of that.  But I also think that these results offer important ammunition for those of us (and we are hardly alone in this) who care about making the system more fair, both in reality and in perception.  I hope this study will encourage courts and other criminal justice agencies to take a long hard look at how they work with individuals -- be they victims, witnesses, probationers, parolees, or defendants -- and think about how they can serve the public better.  I also hope this study will offer food for thought for those who end up staffing the de Blasio administration, encouraging them to invest in community justice and meaningful alternatives to incarceration.

Here are a couple of links to early press coverage of the study:

Huffington Post: Perceptions Matter -- A Roadmap to Reducing Crime

New York Daily News: Red Hook Community Court Is a Success

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Arts and Criminal Justice

One of the things that has kind of snuck up on me over the years is how much arts-related programming we do at the Center for Court Innovation.  To give just a small sample:

This list just scratches the surface.  Like many things, our arts-related work is not the product of some grand strategic plan, but rather the result of the vision and entrepreneurial energy of the staff at our operating projects, who are constantly looking for new ways to serve their clients and the local community.  One of my goals for the year ahead is to get smarter about the intersection of criminal justice and the arts, reflecting back on what we have learned over the years at our own projects as well as the lessons that others in the field can offer us.  Stay tuned for more on this subject in the months to come.

Note: The image above is a painting by the talented Brooklyn artist Jason Das, who has worked on a couple of projects with the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center.  I was so impressed by his work that I commissioned a painting of the Midtown Community Court as part of our celebration of the Court's 20th anniversary -- we gave prints to the evening's honorees instead of the usual glass paperweights.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Thoughts on Lou Reed's Passing

Lou Reed passed away yesterday. He was a generation older than me and his most revered music came out years before I began listening to music in earnest.  Nonetheless, I still felt like I had a connection with his work -- a glance at my record collection reveals that I own all of the Velvet Underground's records and seven of his solo albums.  I also saw him live a handful of times in the 1980s.

As I'm sure is true for many listeners, Lou Reed helped to define my relationship with New York City.  When I was still a kid and New York was basically an abstraction for me, his tales of drug deals in Harlem and Greenwich Village eccentrics painted a vivid picture of a place that was both scary and exciting.

When I reached adulthood and was starting to think about where to begin my professional career, he released an album entitled "New York" that depicted a city out of control, marked by violence, economic inequality, tabloid politics, and racial animus (one of my favorite lines referred to the "Statue of Bigotry").  I don't want to give him too much credit, but I think this may have delayed my arrival in the City by a couple of years.

When I finally arrived in New York in my mid-20s, I moved to the east side of Manhattan, just north of the Village.  I'm not sure where he lived, but Lou Reed was easily the celebrity that I saw most frequently on the streets during these years. I saw him on 3rd Avenue, at the movies, at bodegas, and at numerous local restaurants.

These were fun years to live in Manhattan, at least for me.  By this point, the chaos and disorder years in New York had passed.  Public safety had begun to improve.  The economy was booming.  And the City's population slide had started to reverse itself.  Reading some of the obituaries today, I see that, for many people, Lou Reed symbolized a more dangerous time, when the Bowery was full of junkies and future artists seeking cheap rents rather than upscale hotels and fancy boutiques.   And, to be sure, Lou Reed conjures up these years for me too.  But I also associate him with the more benign 1990s and 2000s.  I never got up the nerve to speak to him, but I always found his presence comforting in an avuncular kind of way.  The music that accompanies these memories is not "I'm Waiting for The Man" or "Walk on the Wild Side" or any of Reed's most famous compositions. Rather, it is the relatively modest (and surprisingly upbeat) middle-aged work "New Sensations," which will always be my favorite of his records.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

News from North Liverpool

This week brings disappointing news from England: the Ministry of Justice has decided to close the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre.

In truth, the handwriting has been on the wall for the Justice Centre for some time.  The combination of the fiscal crisis and uncertain evaluations regarding the effectiveness of the project meant that the Justice Centre has been on the chopping block for the past several years.

Still, this doesn't make the decision any happier for those of us who care about the ideas that the Justice Centre was intended to embody: a justice system that takes minor offending seriously, that seeks out alternatives to incarceration wherever possible, and that attempts to reach out to defendants and the community in new ways in an effort to restore public faith in government.

North Liverpool was arguably the most prominent symbol of these values in England, but it wasn't the only one.  Indeed, our British partner, the Centre for Justice Innovation, has recently published a great document, entitled Better Courts, that highlights examples of innovative practice across England, Wales and Scotland.

I don't have much doubt that, with the help of the Centre for Justice Innovation, ideas like procedural justice and community payback and enhanced judicial monitoring will continue to survive and even thrive in the United Kingdom.  But that's a story for another day.  Today is a day to acknowledge the passing of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre and the efforts of everyone who worked to get the project off the ground in the face of numerous obstacles.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Midtown Turns 20

We are two weeks away from the 20th anniversary celebration of the Midtown Community Court and we are busy putting the finishing touches on what promises to be a great event.

The party doesn't have an official theme, but if it did, the theme would probably be public-private partnership.  The Midtown Community Court would not exist were it not for the combined efforts of dozens of government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses, including the Shubert Organization, which will be honored at the October 21st event.  If the list of people who have already bought tickets is any indication, we will have a good mix of all three sectors represented at the Morgan Library.  Should make for an interesting gathering.

As is my wont, in the run-up to the event I have been thinking about the history of the Midtown Community Court, much of which I have had the pleasure of witnessing first hand.  I thought I would share a few photos from our archives that strike a particular chord with me.  The first is the photo above which comes from Midtown's 10th anniversary celebration, which we celebrated with a breakfast that featured the Lord Chancellor of England, who talked about how his country was adapting some of the ideas that began at the Midtown Community Court.  The New York Times ran a nice piece on his speech.  The photo above shows the Lord Chancellor on the bench with Julius Lang and Judge Eileen Koretz.

This is a photo of two of the behind-the-scenes players that made Midtown a success in its early days: Herb Sturz and Michele Sviridoff.  The founder of the Vera Institute of Justice, Herb has played a number of influential roles in New York City, including helping to conceive of the idea of the Midtown Community Court in the early 1990s.  Michele served as Midtown's original director of research.  She literally wrote the book on Midtown -- she is co-author of Dispensing Justice Locally, which documented that Midtown helped to reduce local crime and improve public trust in justice.

This photo features John Feinblatt, Midtown's founding director, alongside Robert Keating (then the administrative judge responsible for New York City's criminal courts) and Richard Zorza (a technology guru who helped design the case management system for Midtown).  

On a typical day, Midtown serves hundreds of New Yorkers who come to court with a misdemeanor or a summons case.  Like many New York courts, it is crowded and busy.  Sometimes, amidst all of the activity, it is easy to forget that the building is actually kinda special.  (This is doubly so now, when the building is actually under renovation.)  The photo above captures the courtroom as it almost never appears in real life: devoid of people.  Alta Indelman was one of the architects who worked on the design of the Midtown Community Court in the 1990s.  We liked her work so much, that we have used her for multiple projects in the years since.

Finally, no review of the history of Midtown would be complete without mention of Judith Kaye and Jonathan Lippman, the two chief judges who have been responsible for not just sustaining the project, but promoting its values across the New York court system and around the world.  In this photo, they are pictured along with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Banksy in New York

A few cultural items that I have been enjoying/keeping my eye on of late...  

First, as has been well-reported, the brilliant Bansky is currently in New York and blessing our streets and walls with some of his work.  I made the pilgrimage to check out one piece (see above) which was located a few blocks from the Center for Court Innovation's headquarters on the west side.  Alas, it had already been partially painted over.

My mother-in-law, Kathleen Vellenga, has published her first novel, Strangers in our Midst,  a historical adventure that is loosely based on her family's history, dating back to the Mayflower days. 

As a small acknowledgement of the passing of Elmore Leonard a few weeks ago, I decided to read his Western novel Hombre.  It is probably the most banal observation I've ever made, but man, could that guy write.  Anybody interested in the craft of writing -- not just fiction, but all forms of writing -- would do well to study his work. 

I can't speak to the quality of this exhibition since it hasn't actually opened yet at the Jewish Museum in London, but I love the topic and I love the cheekiness of its title. 

Speaking of football, after several grim years, Arsenal finally seems to be back on the right track -- they are currently sitting on top of the Premiership standings.  There are a number of good soccer writers that I read on a regular basis, including ESPN's Roger Bennett and the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel, but my favorite to read specifically about Arsenal is the Guardian's Amy Lawrence, who typically manages to combine the passion of a true fan with the objective analysis of a good journalist.  

Finally, I have been going through a little bit of a dry patch with regard to music of late.  I like the new Arctic Monkeys album (AM) although it does feel like they have evolved into a very different band than the one that made the unbelievably good Whatever People I Say I Am, That's What I Am Not.  

As I have gotten older, I have found myself gravitating away from the ambitious music that I favored as a kid (the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy), all of which seems faintly pretentious/preposterous to me at the moment.   Instead, I have been enjoying bands with more modest aspirations.  The album that I seem to be listening to the most at the moment is Everlast's Life Acoustic, which somehow marries acoustic guitar with a hip-hop sensibility.   

Planting Seeds in Chicago

I spent the bulk of last week in Chicago at the invitation of Chicago Appleseed for Justice and the Council of Lawyers.  At the request of Malcolm Rich, who directs both groups, I came to Chicago to talk about criminal justice innovation.  With some trepidation, given the historical rivalry between the two cities, I chose to talk about New York City's remarkable success reducing crime and incarceration over the past twenty years.  (In preparing the speech, I drew heavily on the manuscript I have recently completed, tentatively entitled "Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration" for Quid Pro Books. I also made a similar case in a recent op-ed that I wrote for The Guardian.)

One of the points I tried to make in the speech is that some small part of New York's criminal justice success in recent years is due to the fact that the City has long supported a network of non-profit organizations that seek to reform the justice system in one way or another.  These include treatment providers, victims organizations, advocacy groups, alternative-to-incarceration programs, research agencies and others.  This is, of course, a somewhat self-serving argument since the Center for Court Innovation is a non-profit organization devoted to promoting justice reform.  But I really do believe in my heart that our work, when combined with the dozens of other organizations working to advance similar goals, has helped to push, poke, and prod the justice system in New York to live up to its highest ideals.

I think that the Chicago Appleseed for Justice and the Council of Lawyers are capable of playing a  similar role in Chicago.  Indeed, there is evidence that this is already happening.  While I was in Chicago, I visited Cook County Criminal Court and talked to a number of judges and administrators involved in a new effort to provide community-based treatment to a high-risk population of defendants that would otherwise be bound for prison.  Chicago Appleseed has helped move the project from the drawing board to the brink of implementation.  I'm looking forward to returning to Chicago and seeing the project once it is up and running.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Smart on Crime

Over the past couple of weeks, Mark Kleiman, UCLA professor and author of When Brute Force Fails, has been on my mind a lot.

First, Phil Bowen and the Centre for Justice Innovation helped facilitate a series of meetings in London for Mark.  Part of the Centre's mission is to serve as a conduit between the US and the UK, bringing new ideas in criminal justice reform from one country to the other.   Mark has some ideas about how to use swift, certain, and relatively mild sanctions to promote more effective community supervision of offenders.  Phil pitched in to help ensure that Mark's ideas reached both local and national policymakers in England.

Following his trip to London, Mark participated in a roundtable discussion at the Vera Institute of Justice alongside a handful of other academics and non-profit types, including me.  In my preparation for that meeting, I stumbled across an essay that Mark had written for the Democracy Journal entitled "Smart on Crime." Of all the things I've read by Mark, this is probably my favorite.  As anyone who has spent time with Mark knows, he is a big personality who takes delight in provocation.  He is also a deft writer who knows how to turn a memorable phrase.  He brings all of these qualities to bear in "Smart on Crime." The whole essay is worth reading, but here are a handful of excerpts that I particularly liked:
The debate over criminal-justice policy often seems to take place between the disciples of Michel Foucalt and the disciples of the Marquis de Sade, with the Foucaldians winning the academic debate even as the sadists mostly get their way in the real political world.
Why do some people keep committing crimes, to their own evident disadvantage? Because they're present-oriented and impulsive...If you're looking for a single "root cause" of crime, look no further: The cause is bad decision-making by offenders.
As Machiavelli warned...a reluctance to punish comes naturally with good-heartedness, but those unable to overcome that reluctance are as unfit to rule as those who have no such reluctance to begin with.  
I don't always agree with Mark, but I always learn something from listening to him and reading his work.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Justice for Trafficking Victims

This morning at a special breakfast convened by Richard Aborn and the Citizens Crime Commission, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced a new initiative designed to improve how the courts handle cases involving victims of human trafficking.  The centerpiece of the initiative is a series of human trafficking intervention courts that will attempt to aid women arrested on prostitution charges, offering them the prospect of non-criminal case dispositions and providing them with the kinds of specialized services needed to escape life on the streets.

These new courts will build on a foundation established by the Midtown Community Court, where we've been attempting to forge a new approach to prostitution cases that relies on trauma-informed care as an alternative to jail.  For more on our work with this vulnerable population, check out Prostitution Diversion Programs, a pamphlet written by Danielle Malangone, Sarah Schweig, and Miriam Goodman.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Transition to Fall

Apologies for the radio silence of late -- for whatever reason, I have found the transition to autumn more challenging than in previous years.   I now have my kids in two separate schools which has added more schlepping and time commitments to my life (essentially doubling the amount of parents nights, school fundraisers and other events that my wife and I have to attend).  Also, if I am honest, I think that some of my new media energy is being taken up by Twitter -- I started tweeting over the summer. (Check out my feed here.)

Despite the distractions, there is an enormous amount going on at the Center for Court Innovation that I have not reported on in a major way, either on Twitter or via other avenues.  This includes the upcoming release of an evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center by the National Center for State Courts and a 20th anniversary celebration for the Midtown Community Court.  (For more on this, and to order tickets, click here.)   I have also been busy preparing for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice annual luncheon, which I am speaking at next week in Chicago.

I will have more on all of these events in the days to come.  But for now, I thought I'd just catch you up on some recent press activity:

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tim Murray Steps Down

Last week brought news that Tim Murray will step down as the head of the Pretrial Justice Institute in 2014.  This is a big loss for the field -- and for me personally.  I've mentioned Tim in passing on this blog in the past as someone I admire, but this just scratches the surface.

I first met Tim during the Clinton years, when he served as the deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the US Department of Justice.  He had been a key player in setting up the first drug court in Florida.  My first encounters with him were part of a concerted effort to get BJA interested in the Midtown Community Court.   As a drug court guy, Tim might have viewed the community court model with suspicion.  But that isn't how Tim views the world -- he isn't a narrow thinker.  Instead of competition, he saw John Feinblatt, Eric Lee, and the rest of us at the Center for Court Innovation as allies and comrades in arms.  

As I got to know Tim better, I saw that this was typical of him.  While he is capable of sarcasm and a certain world-weariness that probably comes from operating at a high level in government and the non-profit sector for decades, behind that is a genuine idealism and a generosity of spirit.  Over the years, I have been the beneficiary of both of these qualities.  Tim has given his time whenever I have asked it of him -- to be interviewed as part of our study of criminal justice leadership, to facilitate a roundtable on statewide coordination of problem-solving courts, or to pick his brain on various controversies of the moment.    

Tim was particularly important to me when I first became the director of the Center for Court Innovation 12 years ago.  He was still at BJA at that point.  I made a special trip down to Washington DC to reassure him that the Center was in good hands and that our work in partnership with BJA would continue.  I don't remember the details, but I do remember that he gave me a hard time for the first 30 minutes -- testing my knowledge, seeing how I reacted to a stressful situation -- before ending with a note of real support and encouragement.

That particular meeting set the pattern for our relationship.  I have always found Tim challenging in the best sense of the word -- he continually challenges me to be the best leader of the Center that I can be.  I will miss him and I wish him nothing but the best going forward.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Reading the Final Chapter

Today was a sad day at the Center for Court Innovation: we formally said goodbye to Sharon Bryant, who served for the last decade as an administrative assistant in our central office in Manhattan.  Sharon left us way too soon -- she was only 47 years old when she passed, although she had been ill for some time.

Despite our collective grief, I found the funeral service comforting.  There was a good contingent of Sharon's colleagues from across the various projects that the Center runs -- Midtown Community Court, Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, Newark Community Solutions, Brownsville Community Justice Center, Bronx Community Solutions were just some of the projects that were represented.  Even several former Center staffers came back to pay their respects (thanks so much Mia, Aeli, Fertia!).  It felt good to see the Center come together to support one of its own.  

I also enjoyed the eulogy by Rev. Tabiri Chukunta of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens. He built his remarks around the metaphor of life as a book and the importance of "reading the final chapter."  He encouraged the congregation to prepare for our final day and figure out how we were going to make the most out of the time we had left.

I am not a minister, of course.  I don't know how to comfort a family that has lost a daughter, a sister, a friend.  The best I can do is offer a version of the email that I sent around to staff at the Center when we found out about Sharon's passing last week:

It's A Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorite movies.  For me, the most important line in that film is uttered by the angel Gabriel who tells George Bailey, "Each man's life touches so many other lives.  When he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"  

Sharon's passing reminds me of the wisdom of this line.  While she was in many respects a private person who never sought the limelight, she had a significant impact on the culture of our office.  She was the first point of contact for many of the people who work here or who visit the Center.  

Over the years, she helped arrange dozens of staff meetings, parties, lunches, roundtables and other events, taking enormous care that everything was done right and that we presented a professional face to the world.  She struggled mightily with her health, particularly over the last six months, but she was unfailingly kind to me, asking about my kids, offering me a piece of chocolate when she thought I looked low on energy, talking about our shared interest in hip-hop and R&B from the 80s and 90s, etc.  

I saw her basically every working day for a decade or more.  While, like me, she was occasionally prickly, we figured out a way to work together happily and productively.  I am glad to have known her.  She made my life better.   She leaves an awful hole. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

We Don't Know

Today feels like a big day in the world of criminal justice.  First, as expected, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practice was unconstitutional.  In addition, in a speech to the American Bar Association, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered a stinging critique of the criminal justice system and mandatory minimums in particular.  Among other things, Holder called for deeper investments in alternatives to incarceration (including drug courts) and a renewed focus on helping former prisoners reenter society.

These announcements have generated a fair amount of attention online.  There are good reasons for this: both developments carry enormous symbolic weight and are a further sign that the winds have shifted in terms of criminal justice.  The assumptions that have guided policymaking for the past generation, particularly the quest for more punitive responses to crime, truly seem to be giving way.

Will these developments fundamentally alter the way the criminal justice system operates in the US?  The only possible answer is: we don't know.

In general, we are living through a best of times/worst of times moment when it comes to knowledge and the criminal justice system.   On the one hand, the past couple of decades have seen dramatic improvements in terms of the availability and use of scientific evidence.  As I have highlighted previously in this space, the Center for Court Innovation recently released research suggesting that 9 out of 10 senior criminal justice officials look to research when making decisions.  We don't have a baseline to compare this finding against, but I'd be shocked if a similar survey taken in, say, 1993, revealed similar support for reading research.  The Department of Justice now maintains a "what works" clearinghouse ( that offers easy access to criminal justice programs that have been documented to be effective by independent evaluators.

On the other hand, we are still largely in the dark about many of the big questions in criminal justice.  Perhaps most fundamentally, there are no definitive answers to why crime has gone down so dramatically in many places in the US over the past generation.

This point was underlined by two articles that recently crossed my desk.

The first, from the great website Crime Report, was titled, "Explaining the US Crime Decline."   In the piece, the criminologist Richard Rosenfeld (one of the stars of Trial and Error in Criminal Justice Reform) talks about a series of roundtables and papers he is helping to organize for the National Institute of Justice.  Along the way, Rosenfeld admits that this process, which will unfold over the course of three years, is unlikely to result in a definitive conclusion.  He also says, "No study has shown that criminal justice efforts, not necessarily limited to the police and corrections, are responsible for all or most of the crime decline."

This statement, and others like it, should encourage a healthy dose of humility among criminal justice agencies (and those of us who work outside the system as well).  Speaking of humility, the other article that I found compelling was a Talking Points Memo blog post that was forwarded to me by Adam Mansky.  Entitled "Humility and History," the piece looks at 50 years of criminal justice reform in the US alongside the murder rate in the US during that period.  The argument is that the murder rate goes a long way towards explaining the politics of crime at any given moment: when the murder rate is up, punitive policies holds sway.  When the murder rate declines, the pendulum swings the other way.

The key line, at least for me, is this one: "If you're open to history and data, it forces humility.  We're in control of less than we imagine and know perhaps even less than that."  It may seem strange to say, but I think these are words to live by.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Origins of the Midtown Community Court

Later this fall, we will host a 20th anniversary celebration for the Midtown Community Court.  The project has had an enormously rich history.  For example, the photo above was taken from Midtown's 10th anniversary, an event that featured Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Lord Chancellor of England and Wales.  The photo features two key figures from Midtown's history: Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization and former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye.

Schoenfeld and the Shubert Organization, which is the largest theatre owner on Broadway, played a particularly key role in the early days of the project.  Herb Sturz (another important early player), described a crucial breakfast meeting with Schoenfeld from the early 1990s:  
I was always complaining about panhandlers and such, and the mess-up in Times Square, and what can be done about it, and no one cared but the theater....I do remember very well saying to Gerry, “Gerry, you know what? If you give me a theater, I’ll give you a court” because I knew he’s so dramatic and that we could do it and that will take care of a place in Times Square. He offered it rent-free for three years. 
That breakfast meeting was really the spark that led to the creation of the Midtown Community Court.  For a variety of reasons, the Court was never located in the theater that Schoenfeld offered.  But Shubert's early support of the idea helped attract the attention of key city decisionmakers, foundations and other public and private partners.  I think it is safe to say that the Midtown Community Court probably doesn't happen without Shubert's initial push.  And that's why we have chosen to honor the Shubert Organization at the upcoming 20th anniversary celebration.

More to come on the history of the Midtown Community Court in the days ahead...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Classic of Law & Society

As promised, Quid Pro Books has put one of my all-time favorite books back into print: Malcolm Feeley's classic Court Reform on Trial: Why Simple Solutions Fail.  (The e-book is available now.  Paperback will be available later this week.  I will share a link when it comes online.)

I was honored to be asked to write a brief foreword to this new edition.  Here's a short excerpt:
You might think a book devoted to failed court reform efforts would be a grim read.  But it isn't. Feeley's text is brimming with energy not resignation.  In sifting through the impacts and unintended consequences of a range of "planned change" efforts, Feeley offers reformers both sympathy (the obstacles to change are enormous) and hope (if we create more realistic expectations, it will be easier to recognize success).  My copy of Court Reform on Trial bears the marks of my endorsement.  Almost every page is heavily underlined and full of marginal exclamations.
Off the top of my head, I can't think of a book I would recommend more highly to anyone who is interested in reforming practice in the criminal justice system.  Any similarities between Feeley's book and Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure are purely intentional -- I took a lot of inspiration from Feeley.

I'm not sure I will ever fully repay my intellectual debt to Feeley, but I hope to at least partially accomplish this goal by helping Court Reform on Trial find a new audience.  Do yourself a favor and buy this book!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Leadership and Innovation

Today marks the release of our national innovation study, which offers results from a survey of over 600 senior criminal justice officials from a variety of fields: policing, courts, probation, and prosecution.  Here are links to the full report and selected highlights.

For me, the principal takeaway from the study, which we conducted with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, is that the state of the criminal justice innovation is pretty healthy.  I think criminal justice leaders are getting the message that the "command and control" style of management doesn't always encourage new thinking in the ranks.  Rather than simply asking respondents whether they are innovative or not, our research team attempted to gauge their commitment to innovation by testing their endorsement of specific practices, including:

1. I work to create an agency climate where failure is openly discussed.
2. I rely on research and evidence to make programmatic decisions in my work.
3. I regularly share my agency’s data with other partner agencies.
4. I almost always use data when identifying priorities or crafting programs and policies.
5. I encourage my staff to take risks.
6. Driving system change is an important part of my job.
7. I routinely seek out consultants or technical assistance to help plan new initiatives.

The survey respondents reported high levels of support for each of these statements.  The survey also highlighted something that we've long suspected at the Center for Court Innovation: there is a link between research and innovation.  Leaders who reported greater use of research also reported higher levels of innovation at their agencies.

Towards the end of the survey, we got a little cute and asked criminal justice officials a series of open-ended questions.  For example, we asked them who was the most innovative figure in criminal justice.  The overwhelming answer was former police commissioner Bill Bratton.  We also asked them which new programs they were particularly excited about.  Answers were all over the map, but we found particularly high levels of interest in problem-solving courts, evidence-based sentencing reforms, and technological innovations.

I've been inspired by the innovation survey to write a couple of op-eds on the subject:

National Law Journal: Criminal Justice Reform and Risk Taking

Huffington Post: What Lessons Can Business Teach Criminal Justice?

Update: Speaking of leadership and innovation, today brings official word that the Vera Institute of Justice has hired my buddy Nick Turner to be their new president.  I am a biased observer, but Nick is a great choice to lead this wonderful organization.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Media Coverage

I'm just back from a few days in London with my friends at the Centre for Justice Innovation UK, which we have now spun off into a separate charity.

One of the issues that we discussed was whether the Centre should try to raise its public profile.  In my experience, to be effective, a non-profit has to have a certain visibility -- otherwise, it is impossible to get people (funders, government officials, potential partners, etc) to return your phone calls.  At the same time, it is easy to confuse media attention with impact -- not every agency that appears in the papers on a regular basis is actually doing a good job.  I also like the old quotation, attributed to Harry Truman, that goes something like this: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."  Indeed,  at the Center for Court Innovation we often make the strategic decision to cede public credit to our partners, particularly those in the public sector.

But not always.  In recent months, we have sought to attract more attention to some of our research reports.  These efforts seem to be paying off, including a New York Times story by Jim Dwyer ("Turning Lives Around and Saving Money") and an Associated Press story by Jake Pearson ("Easing NY's Tough Drug Laws Saves Money") on our study of the impact of New York's Rockefeller Drug Law reforms.  

Here are some other recent press clips:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Reaffirming the Risk Principle

June is graduation season not just for schools across the US but for the Center for Court Innovation.  For the past several weeks, our calendar has been dominated by celebrations -- youth court graduations, attendance achievement program award ceremonies, an open house to celebrate QUEST moving to new and better space, the opening of a youth photography exhibit by the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a farewell party for a beloved staff member moving to Chicago, and other events.

Today's big event was a research briefing for a select group of criminal justice officials in New York City unveiling the findings of a new research study that examines the results of the New York State Court System's adolescent diversion program.  Created by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman last year, the adolescent diversion program features pilot programs in nine New York counties dedicated to refashioning court outcomes for 16 and 17 year old criminal defendants. (New York is one of only two states that handles these cases in adult criminal court rather than family/juvenile court.)

Our report examined the first six months of implementation of the adolescent diversion program.  Among other things, our research team documented that the nine pilot sites succeeded in assessing and linking hundreds of young people to services.  Crucially, the adolescent diversion program did not jeopardize public safety.  Indeed, the data suggests that the program actually reduced felony level re-arrests.

The study also affirmed the "risk principle": put simply, the kinds of interventions offered by the adolescent diversion program (treatment, education, etc) were more successful with high-risk young people than with low-risk young people.  This is consistent with other research documenting that intensive interventions can actually have a negative impact with those participants who are at minimal risk of re-offending.  This has important implications for how the adolescent diversion program and other similar initiatives should proceed in the days to come, suggesting that rigorous screening is crucial and that resources can be most effectively targeted to high-risk participants.

I'm hoping that today's event was a step in that direction.  The attendees -- including representatives from the court system, various district attorney's offices, and the mayor's office -- were certainly engaged and interested in teasing out recommendations for future practice.  Meetings between researchers and practitioners don't always go smoothly, but this one left me encouraged that there is a healthy community of criminal justice officials in New York City with an active interest in responding to the evidence.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Photo of the Week

One of my favorite parts of the Center for Court Innovation's website is the Photo of the Week feature.  Each week, thanks to our ace communications team, we feature an image that highlights something interesting that happened either at the Center or, more frequently, at one of our demonstration projects. (The shot above, the latest entry, comes from the Gracie Mansion award ceremony for the NYC Innovative Nonprofit Awards.)

Quite often, the images are strikingly beautiful, like this shot of an anti-violence march that the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center organized in Brooklyn:

Sometimes, the images are inspirational, like this photo of the Red Hook Community Justice Center raising its banner and returning to business as usual following the destruction of Superstorm Sandy: 

And sometimes the photos document key strategic partnerships or the culmination of successful projects, like this shot from Brownsville, where we unveiled a giant mural with the help of New York City Probation Commission Vinny Schiraldi, the arts organization Groundswell, and other partners: 

The archive goes back to April 2012 and features photographs from many (although not all) of our demonstration projects.  Stay tuned for more in the weeks to come. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Back in 2006, we made a commitment to “new media” when we launched Changing the Court, a blog that documented the planning and implementation of Bronx Community Solutions, a program that sought to change sentencing practice for misdemeanor offenders in the Bronx.

In the years since then, the Center for Court Innovation has become increasingly devoted to blogging.  Today, we support no fewer than fourteen blogs (click here for complete list).

The Center’s blogs reflect the diversity of our organization.  A quick scan of recent posts reveals
before-and-after photographs of graffiti removal projects in Red Hook, a description of an arts-to-end violence program in Crown Heights, a rich interview about the intersection of juvenile justice and mental health, and a story about Law Day activites in Newark.

While each of the Center’s blogs has its own editorial voice, what they all have in common is a commitment to involving readers in how we do our work -- revealing not just the final product but the process of how we got there.

As a manager, I sometimes worry about the proliferation of Center-related blogs (to say nothing of our Twitter accounts or Facebook pages).  When I first started in this business, a typical non-profit would have a monthly newsletter that would be its primary (if not exclusive) vehicle for spreading its institutional message.  Each story could be tightly controlled, each word carefully weighed and vetted.

In the post-Internet age, this kind of communication strategy doesn’t make much sense.  At the Center, we have embraced a less centralized approach that encourages our programs to communicate directly with their communities.  I see drawbacks to this approach.  There is the potential for duplication of effort.  It is harder to do meaningful quality control.   And, at a basic level, I have less control over the messages that we send out.  But, for an organization like the Center for Court Innovation, which is committed to open communication and reaching out the public in new ways, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Innies

A slightly overcast and humid morning but little can dampen my good mood.   Today, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) awarded the first "Innies" -- the New York City Innovative Nonprofit Awards -- with a breakfast ceremony at Gracie Mansion presided over by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs.  The Center didn't win the big prize (that went to GreenCity Force) but we were among the ten non-profits honored for using data to fight poverty in innovative ways.   We were recognized in particular for the work we have done in Red Hook to help low-level defendants avoid incarceration and lead productive, law-abiding lives.  In my grip-and-grin opportunity with the Mayor, he fondly remembered touring the Justice Center with Amanda Burden and meeting Judge Calabrese before he became Mayor.

While it is always fun to receive a little recognition, the best part of the ceremony came at the end when one of the staffers from CEO came up to (re)introduce herself to me.  While I didn't recognize her, she was
part of the original Youth Justice Board class (2004 I believe).   After leaving the Board, she went to college, then became an Urban Fellow, before joining CEO to work on social innovation.  She credited the Youth Justice Board with sparking her interest in government and giving her the confidence that she could be an active participant in the process.  A living, breathing example that our work makes a difference on both the lives of individuals and in policy circles...hard to beat that for a pick-me-up on a grey Wednesday morning.

Friday, May 10, 2013

On Public Service

On Wednesday, I participated in the annual presentation of the Sloan Public Service Awards by the Fund for the City of New York.  I've written about the Sloan Awards a lot in the past (for example, in 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009), so I will try to keep it brief here.  These awards honor some of the unsung heroes of New York City: the exemplary city employees who run our libraries, steer our traffic, clean up our schools, and care for our sick, among other tasks.

One of the awardees who struck a chord with me this year was Linda Pantages, a fiscal administrator at the Department of Youth and Community Development.  As became palpably clear during the selection process, Pantages has helped dozens of New York non-profits, many of them small and struggling, figure out how to meet the City's accountability standards and receive funding for their work with young people.

I don't know her personally, but I think it is fair to say that operating the Center for Court Innovation would be impossible without people like Pantages inside government.  Our operational model is built on partnership with city, state, and national government.  At each of these levels, we have been fortunate to work with dedicated individuals who understand what we are trying to do and can help us navigate the bureaucracy to get what we need.  Civil servants are all too often caricatured or used as props by demagogues who deride government as inefficient and even malevolent.   Events like the Sloan Awards offer a much-needed corrective to this narrative.   (In a phone call this week, a friend pointed out that the only silver lining to events like the terror attack at the Boston marathon is that they too underline that government can be effective.)

Two other highlights from a busy week:  last night I co-hosted a wonderful party in honor of the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education.  Just this week, a participant in the program was paroled and accepted for admission at the New School -- the fifth such student to be released and enrolled in college.

Finally, one of the best things I've read in awhile appeared online: Arkadi Gerney's story in the New Yorker about the work of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and his own relationship with guns and gun violence.  Not to be missed.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On Leadership

Leadership has been very much on my mind this week.

First, I attended Coro New York's annual civic leadership benefit.  Back in 1992, I spent a life-changing year as a Coro Fellow.  The experience fundamentally altered my career trajectory, introducing me to New York City, the field of criminal justice, and a number of people like John Feinblatt and Maddy Lee that would go on to have a huge influence on my life.  Just as important, Coro profoundly shaped the way that I think about the world.  In particular, it helped me to see that there are numerous ways to be an effective leader -- and that autocratic and charismatic leadership styles aren't always the best, particularly in the long run.

I think my Coro experience is one reason I have been drawn to the behind-the-scenes style of reform that Herb Sturz pioneered at the Vera Institute of Justice and that John Feinblatt embraced at the Center for Court Innovation.  Last night, I attended a small farewell gathering for one of Herb's successors, Michael Jacobson.   One of the things that I admire about both Herb and Michael and John -- and that I have tried to emulate -- is their commitment to research.

It turns out that this trait is crucial not just for non-profit management, but for the field of criminal justice in general.  We are putting the finishing touches on a national survey of criminal justice leaders, including police chiefs, elected prosecutors, corrections officials and state court chief judges and administrators.  In reviewing a draft of the study this week, one of the things that struck me is that there appears to be a strong relationship between research and innovation.  Leaders who invest in research also are more likely to rate themselves and their agencies as innovative.  

More to come on our national innovation survey in the weeks ahead...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tales from the Green Monster

Last Friday, Newark came to Manhattan in the form of a staff meeting featuring Jethro Antoine and Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  Together, Jethro and Judge Pratt offered a ground-level view of life at the "Green Monster," as the municipal courthouse on Green Street in Newark is sometimes known.

If the conversation had a theme, I think it would have been "small things can make a big difference."  Like many of our projects, Newark Community Solutions is attempting to reengineer how the justice system responds to minor crime.  For us, this means reducing the number of defendants who go to jail or receive fines and increasing the use of alternative sanctions such as community restitution and social services.  And it means making great efforts to promote compliance so that defendants aren't set up to fail.

One of the ancillary benefits of our approach is that, if all goes well, it should reduce the number of individuals who receive warrants.   Warrants are more than a nuisance.  For many, they are essentially a walking jail term -- at any given moment, on any given day, they are susceptible to being picked up by police and dragged into jail, even if they are guilty of no misbehavior at present.  And, in many cases, the outstanding warrants are decades old or involve small, unpaid fines.  No matter how ancient or minor, the presence of outstanding warrants on a individual's record can have a massive impact on his or her behavior and life prospects.

In addition to reducing the use of fines, Newark Community Solutions also seeks to decrease the issuance of warrants through a focus on procedural justice.  Judge Pratt is one of the leading practitioners of procedural justice that I have ever had the privilege of observing.   She is particularly adept at using plain language in the courtroom to ensure defendant comprehension.

Judge Pratt gave a nice example of this on Friday, talking about how when she started on the bench she used to ask defendants about their use of "psychotropic medication" -- and received nothing but blank looks and demurrals in return.  When she instead started to ask defendants about whether they took anything to "clear their minds," the conversations became much richer and more productive.

It may seem like a small thing but, according to Judge Pratt, tweaking her language in the courtroom has helped to reduce the stacks of bench warrants on her desk.  And that can add up to big change indeed in the lives of hundreds of defendants each year.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Law Schools and Problem-Solving Justice

I spent last night at Brooklyn Law School, guest-lecturing at a class on problem-solving justice taught by Anne Swern of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.  This is a somewhat regular assignment for me -- I think I have taught the class four of the past five years.  

The class at Brooklyn Law is, at least in part, the product of a push we made a few years back at the Center for Court Innovation to try to introduce problem-solving justice into the legal curriculum.  Our thinking at the time was that if we wanted to institutionalize the concepts and practices associated with problem-solving courts, then it made sense to try to influence how the next generation of lawyers were being educated. 

I think you'd have to call our efforts to influence academia a mixed success at best.  In fairness, we didn't devote a lot of resources to the effort. We did some convening of interested law school professors, devised a model curriculum, piloted it at Fordham Law School, and then posted the curriculum on our website.   A handful of folks, like Anne Swern at Brooklyn Law, picked up the course and chose to adopt or adapt it. By and large, the people who did so were adjunct faculty -- mostly sitting judges teaching a law school class on the side.  We didn't really make any inroads with core law school faculty.  And the number of law schools who added a class on problem-solving justice was minimal.  

Awhile back, we attempted to do a review of problem-solving classes at American law schools.  The list is dated, but worth checking out for anyone who is interested.  I've since noticed a few newer classes emerging, like this one at New England Law.  Also worth checking out is this list of therapeutic jurisprudence courses compiled by the University of Arizona.  Therapeutic jurisprudence has developed alongside problem-solving courts and the two movements have much in common.  Therapeutic jurisprudence has been more successful in influencing academia thanks largely to the efforts of David Wexler and the late Bruce Winick, the two leading proponents of the idea.

In all honesty, I had mostly given up on law schools and moved on to other things, but last night may have rekindled my interest -- it was heartening to meet two dozen bright, well-informed young people who were keenly interested in thinking through the implications of drug court, mental health court and other problem-solving models.  I wonder whether the current challenges faced by many law schools, which are struggling to both maintain enrollment and place their graduates in jobs, will create some sort of opening for new curricular ideas.  We'll see.