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...