Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gunfighter Nation

Since the tragedy in Newtown, many of my friends in criminal justice have been obsessed with following the debate on gun reform legislation.  Rather than fixate on the politics of the moment, I have been looking backwards instead with the help of Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin's 1992 book that looks at the centrality of violence to the stories that America tells about itself both through cultural products (novels, plays, movies) and through politics.  I've written about Slotkin once before -- he was one of the professors at Wesleyan who made a lasting impression on me.  Anybody who likes movies should listen to the series of lectures that Wesleyan posted from his class Western Movies: Myth, Ideology and Genre.

I'm only partially through the book, which is long (more than 600 pages) and fairly academic, but it feels like an important and illuminating piece of work. It goes back to 1880 to examine the myth of the frontier in America.  Slotkin is at his best when he is closely examining specific works of art (from Buffalo Bill's Wild West spectacles to The Wild Bunch film) and showing how they use the language of the West to wrestle with contemporary conflicts.   Gunfighter Nation doesn't have the answer to our current debate on gun reform, but it does help explain some of the passions and rhetoric on both sides of the issue.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Transition in Harlem

Today was a day of transition in Harlem: it was Judge Ruben Martino's final day on the bench at the Harlem Community Justice Center.  Next week, he begins work in the Bronx Family Court -- and Harlem will welcome a new judge to 121st Street.  

When I went to say goodbye to him in his office full of moving boxes, I was struck by the fact that Judge Martino somehow seems younger and more energetic than when I first met him nearly a decade ago.   We talked for awhile about our joint struggle to figure out a problem-solving approach to housing cases, so many of which involve tenants struggling with poverty.  

While we have yet to discover a magic intervention to help cure poverty, Judge Martino did end up figuring out a way to make a difference in landlord-tenant disputes.  He was incredibly disciplined about communicating clearly and respectfully to litigants.  And his efforts made a difference: the research suggests that litigants without lawyers at Harlem were more likely to view their court experience positively than similar litigants whose cases were handled in a conventional court.  In a variety of contexts -- not just housing cases, but drug cases and misdemeanor cases and cases involving mentally-ill defendants -- we keep coming to the same realization: how you treat people matters enormously.  This isn't just a question of making people, whether they be defendants or litigants or parolees, feel better -- I think our experience is that you actually get better outcomes this way.

But I digress.  My real point in writing was to offer a few final words in praise of Judge Martino.  He made an enormous contribution to the success of the Harlem Community Justice Center and I have little doubt he will do the same in Bronx Family Court.   We will miss him.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stuff to Read

Lots of interesting new reading material to highlight, so bear with me...

First and foremost, we have released Testing A Public Health Approach to Gun Violence, our evaluation of the Crown Heights Save Our Streets project.   Among other things, the study documents a reduction in shootings in Crown Heights after the project was implemented.

John Roman at the Urban Institute has a provocative blog posting about the intersection of crime, class, and place.

The Fortune Society honored former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye for her contributions to improving justice in New York, including her role in helping to create the Center for Court Innovation.

The John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice is hosting its annual Guggenheim symposium on February 4th and 5th.  A number of folks from the Center for Court Innovation have spoken at this event in the past. This year, James Brodick of the Brownsville Community Justice Center will represent us.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs has released its annual report, entitled "Driving the Future." 

A somewhat hopeful piece on the future of Brownsville, Brooklyn that cites our friend Rosanne Haggerty of Community Solutions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The South Bronx

Today was a bitter cold in New York, but instead of working in my well-heated office, I spent the bulk of the afternoon shivering on the streets of the South Bronx.  I was there to visit our new Save Our Streets program, which is replicating the anti-violence efforts of our Save Our Streets Crown Heights program (which, in turn, is based on the Cure Violence model from Chicago).

It is still early days (we are not fully staffed yet and our offices at 148th and Willis Avenue are still a work in progress), but I was encouraged by the trip.  I spent some time tagging along as our team of outreach workers and violence interrupters walked the streets, attempting to publicize the program and make connections with the kinds of young people who are at particular risk of being both the victims and perpetrators of gun violence.   I was struck by the charisma and popularity of the team -- if they weren't bumping into someone they knew, they were engaging young men at the parks and on the corners in conversation, pressing post cards and flyers into their hands.  (It probably goes without saying, but I wasn't much help in all this.  In fact, several people had to be reassured that I was not a police officer before shooting the breeze.)

In many respects, the SOS outreach effort reminded me of the street team campaigns that Steve Rifkind and others pioneered to market new hip-hop acts.  Like the street teams, the SOS staff prides itself on its knowledge of the community and their ability to tap influential and hard to reach audiences.  But instead of selling CDs, the SOS team is trying something much more difficult: marketing a message of anti-violence.  We are soon to release research suggesting that SOS Crown Heights has experienced some success with this message.  Here's hoping that we will do as well in the South Bronx...

Speaking of the Bronx and hip-hop, I also spent a few moments at Bronx Community Solutions, where Tats Cru, a team of graffiti artists, has recently finished blessing our offices with a mural featuring quotations from various players involved in the project, including a defendant, an attorney and others.  The Bronx Community Solutions blog, Changing the Court, ran a nice post on the project in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Research and Practice

One of the things that we try to accomplish every day at the Center for Court Innovation is to bridge the worlds of research and practice.

Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done.  One of the lowest moments in my career came a few years back when I was tasked with assembling a panel of researchers to present findings about problem-solving courts to an audience primarily comprised of judges.  Unfortunately, I wasn't thoughtful enough about the differences in mindset, vocabulary, and frames of reference between the researchers and their audience of policymakers and practitioners.  The end result was a panel of missed connections -- what Cool Hand Luke might call a "failure to communicate."

I thought of this low moment because I spent an entire day this week bringing together researchers from the National Center for State Courts and policymakers here in New York City to review the preliminary findings from the National Center's independent evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  (The evaluation is currently under peer review and will not be finalized for a couple of months.)

In contrast to my earlier experience, this week's series of meetings was a massive success.  Part of this is due, no doubt, to the fact that the results of the evaluation are overwhelmingly positive (I will write a lot more about this, I'm sure, as the publication date grows closer).  But huge credit also goes to the judges and city officials who attended the presentations.  To a person, they asked thoughtful questions and sought to tease out the implications of the research not just for Red Hook but for the justice system as a whole.  Sometimes researchers like to complain that their work gathers dust and that no one in power is interested in listening to them.  This week's meetings offered encouraging evidence to the contrary.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Call-In

Tonight was the latest "call-in" convened by the Brownsville Anti-Violence Project, our collaboration with Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, the New York Police Department, the Brownsville Partnership and other partners to combat gun crime in Brownsville.  The effort builds on an approach that scholars like Tracey Meares and David Kennedy and Tom Tyler have advocated for some time: improving the legitimacy of the criminal justice system by communicating more directly, clearly, and respectfully to the target audience -- in this case, parolees with a history of violent behavior.

The meeting was held at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in the heart of Brownsville.  About thirty people (all men, save one) spent an hour listening to a half dozen or so representatives of local law enforcement and social service providers.  The law enforcement message, which came from the Brooklyn DA's Office, NYPD, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the US Attorney's Office, was straightforward: we know who you are and where you live...we are watching will not fall between the cracks.  Participants were told that because of their violent histories, beat cops had been given their photos and that they would be the focus of special scrutiny, including aggressive prosecution should they be caught with a gun.

While this message was a strong one, it was delivered without rancor.  Indeed, many of the law enforcement officials prefaced their remarks by saying that they actively hoped that they would not be called upon to lock up anyone at the table.

The criminal justice players were followed by other voices, including Kai Smith, who served 16 years in prison before getting his life together, as well as social service providers who talked about the resources that were available within the community for anyone who needed help escaping a life of crime.

Researchers have documented that this twin-fisted communication strategy helped to reduce re-offending in Chicago.  Will it work in Brooklyn?  It is too early to say -- this was just the fifth such meeting that we have organized.  The participants don't leave the meetings declaring their commitment to law-abiding behavior, and even if they did, it would be empty words until they proved differently over time.

Still, I left Brownsville feeling extremely encouraged.  The atmosphere in the room was serious but not somber.  The camaraderie amongst the speakers felt easy and unforced -- the inter-agency partnership seems to be working well.  Perhaps most important, a healthy percentage of the parolees stayed behind to ask for more information from service providers or just to shoot the breeze with the officials in the room.   One participant claimed, no doubt with some justification, that he had been forced to attend "thousands" of meetings while in prison and on parole.  I doubt whether he had ever gone to one quite like this before.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Friends and Allies

Over the years, the Center for Court Innovation has entered into partnerships with hundreds of non-profit and government agencies.  As anyone who has done collaborative work can testify, partnerships can be profoundly rewarding -- the cliche that it is possible to achieve more if you work together with others turns out often to be true.  Of course, the flip side is also true: partnerships can crush your spirits.  Few things are more painful than managing the conflicts and egos that come along with a bad inter-agency dynamic.

But today I wanted to focus on the positive and highlight a few of the Center's many happy partnerships.  Here is a roundup of recent news from just a handful of the great organizations that we've had a chance to work alongside:

One of our key allies in Newark is the Center for Collaborative Change.  Run by Laurel Dumont, the Center for Collaborative Change has been a key player in Newark's renaissance and has also been an enormous behind-the-scenes contributor to the development of Newark Community Solutions.  On January 23rd, they are convening a "what works" summit dedicated to the challenge of police-community relations.  Speakers include David Kennedy, author of Don't Shoot (now out in paperback!).

With their focus on numbers-driven, non-partisan reform and their extensive political connections, the Council for State Governments' Justice Center has been one of the most prominent national criminal justice non-profits of the past decade.  With a small assist from us, they have recently developed an online curriculum for mental health courts that is worth checking out.

One of the most exciting developments in the world of community courts in recent years was the establishment of the San Francisco Community Justice Center in 2009.  Evidently, we're not the only ones who are jazzed by what is going on in San Francisco; yesterday, Gil Kerlikowske, the White House "drug czar," visited the Justice Center.

Finally, on January 24th, the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education will celebrate its expansion to a second prison in Connecticut (they are now providing liberal arts education at the York and Cheshire facilities).  Wesleyan is the alma mater of a number of Center for Court Innovation staffers (myself included).  A few of us are working with the Center for Prison Education on a small research project that seeks to document the impact of liberal arts classes on inmates' attitudes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Michael Jacobson Moves

Today brings official word that Michael Jacobson is stepping down as head of the Vera Institute of Justice to create a new institute on municipal finance at the City University of New York.

I don't write about Vera very often in this space, but it is an agency that plays a number of important roles for the Center for Court Innovation -- from partner (we have worked closely with them and the City of New York on creating new alternatives to detention, for example) to inspiration (the Vera model of a non-profit working in close partnership with government that was pioneered by Herb Sturz has directly influenced the development of the Center) to competitor (in a world of limited resources, we inevitably end up competing for some of the same grants as Vera).

At the end of the day, I consider myself part of the extended Vera family, although I've never worked there or had any formal connection to the place.  I've particularly enjoyed my interactions with Mike, who has always been generous with his time and his ideas when I've called upon him.  Over the years, Mike has spoken at the Center, participated in our roundtables, and offered advice (and sympathy) about non-profit management issues.  He was even nice enough to blurb Good Courts.  Having walked a mile in similar shoes, I can attest to the degree of difficulty of some of the signal accomplishments of Mike's run at Vera, including the creation of an outpost in New Orleans, the opening of a guardianship project with the New York courts, and the establishment of a center on cost-benefit analysis.  I'm sure Vera will miss Mike, but so will we.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fighting Guns in Crown Heights

Just a great piece from CNN Radio on how Crown Heights Save Our Streets attempts to reduce gun violence -- really, really powerful stuff.  I particularly loved the quote from the Crown Heights resident about our violence interrupters: "When I see them, I know I'm good walking around the streets."  I also liked how Derick Scott pointed out that reducing gun crime isn't just a police problem or an economic development problem or a public health problem -- it is going to take a bunch of organizations, government and non-profit, working together to get things right.

Another piece that caught my eye in the days since I returned from a brief holiday break is "Philanthropy: You're Doing It Wrong," a strongly-worded admonishment to heavy-handed philanthropists from Reuters blogger Felix Salmon.  Many non-profits feel buffeted by onerous demands from donors, but these kinds of things are typically only discussed in hushed whispers, so it was nice to see a more public airing of the issues.

Finally, another sign that drug courts have truly entered the mainstream: I was about a fifth of the way into Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue when I was delighted to read that one of the central characters was referred to a drug court.  Chabon makes the reference without pausing to explain what a drug court is, basically assuming that the reader either already knows or can glean his meaning from the context.  It is a small thing, obviously, but I think an indication of how drug courts are continuing to embed themselves in the world outside of the criminal justice system.