Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Good News, Bad News

In years past, I have had to work hard to engage people outside of the criminal justice system in the idea of criminal justice reform.  No longer.  The events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island have pushed the topic of criminal justice onto the front pages of the papers.  My neighbors and the parents of my kids' friends are suddenly interested in what I do for a living.  That's good news.

The bad news is that the public conversation about criminal justice has become increasingly heated and polarized.  This presents challenges for an organization like the Center for Court Innovation.  Almost all of our operating programs are predicated on the active cooperation of the justice system -- not just courts, but probation, prosecutors, defenders, and police.  We also pride ourselves on our ability to do deep, intensive work alongside local residents and community groups in places like Crown Heights, Brownsville, Harlem, Newark, and Red Hook -- neighborhoods where there is a profound sense of distrust and disengagement with government.   In other words, we want to work with both justice agencies and the communities that are most upset with justice agencies.  This can be a delicate balancing act.

As an agency, we are still trying to figure out how to navigate the current landscape.  My hope is that when the public conversation starts to turn to solutions -- when people begin to ask, "How can we create stronger bonds of mutual engagement, respect, and accountability between justice agencies and the communities they exist to serve" -- there will be a great deal of interest in the kinds of work that the Center for Court Innovation does, whether it be our efforts to bring police and teens together, our work to reduce the use of jail, or our attempts to encourage justice agencies to treat defendants with dignity and respect.

Last week, we had federal judge John Gleeson (see photo above) come to speak at our midtown headquarters. Gleeson spoke eloquently about his efforts to change sentencing practice in the federal courts and to reduce the use of incarceration in particular.  He may just be an extraordinarily gracious man, but Gleeson also talked about how he has drawn inspiration from some of the reforms that the Center for Court Innovation has helped to pilot in the state courts, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Finally, a few recent press clips you may have missed:

Judge Wants to Overhaul NY's Bail System -- A WPIX report on New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's efforts to reduce pretrial detention, including the first-ever coverage of Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, our new supervised release program in Kings County.

Community Courts and the Future of the Criminal Justice System -- Pacific Standard reports on the Red Hook Community Justice Center and the importance of procedural justice.

The Conservative Case for Reforming the Police -- Slate discusses the existence of a vibrant right-wing criminal justice reform movement, argues for a more localized approach to justice, and highlights our work in Red Hook.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Drop the Bomb

For the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about my hometown.  I am a member of a relatively small group: people who were born and raised in Washington DC.  While I have lived in New York since the early 1990s, I get back to Washington frequently.  In fact, I spent a good chunk of last week there celebrating Thanksgiving with my family.

But that's not why DC has been on my mind.

I have been thinking about DC because I have been slowly making my way through the outstanding catalog that accompanied the Pump Me Up: DC Subculture of the 1980s exhibit that the Corcoran Gallery put on a few years back.

The book primarily chronicles the two music scenes that developed along parallel tracks in DC when I was a teen: go-go (think: Trouble Funk) and hardcore (think: Minor Threat).  But Pump Me Up is about more than music.  It also documents the social context of DC in the 1980s. And that context was dominated by crime. The Washington of my youth was known as "the murder capital of the United States" because it had the highest per capita homicide rate of any American city.

To be honest, the violence associated with the drug trade was not part of my daily routine; the neighborhoods where I lived and went to school were not shooting zones.  But I don't think anyone who lived in DC in the '80s was unaffected by crime.  Almost all of my friends were mugged, some at gunpoint.  And huge swaths of the city were essentially off-limits to me growing up.

Hovering over all of this was the issue of race.  The DC I grew up in was a segregated city in many respects.  The disparities between the white neighborhoods and the black neighborhoods were both obvious and painful, particularly given how close many of the most blighted and dangerous neighborhoods were to some of the most powerful symbols of our democracy -- the White House, Congress, and other federal buildings.  

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that my childhood had a profound impact on my career trajectory. Having spent my formative years in a city that felt unsafe and balkanized, I think it is no coincidence that I have spent my professional life trying in my own small way to bring disparate groups together to make neighborhoods safer.  I think a lot of my childhood friends who gravitated toward public interest work would probably say something similar.  (This includes my old soccer teammate Greg Kaufmann, the editor of Talk Poverty, a website that is currently doing a special feature on criminal justice.  I will be making a contribution later this week.)

For many years, the symbol of Washington's unrealized potential as a city was its troubled mayor, Marion Barry, who died last week.  Barry's drug problems, womanizing,  demagoguery, and cronyism provided his critics with ample ammunition.  But he also did a lot of good for Washington, which Pump Me Up underlines through a series of interviews with local artists, many of whom point to Barry's summer youth employment programs as key turning points in their lives.

The New York Times was also even-handed in recounting Barry's legacy.  In fact, the last word in the Times obit actually went to a former boss of mine, Sam Smith, the editor of the Progressive Review.  Smith said of Barry: "It's like going out into a field and seeing an old rusting-out hulk of a car and trying to imagine what it was like when it was brand-new.  What people are seeing now is that corroded shell of what Barry was, and if you don't remember that, it's very hard to see."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"I Don't Want To See You Here Again"

The last couple of weeks at work have been kinda lousy ones for me, full of setbacks, mishaps, and frustrations.  Today offered a bit of a break.  It began with a breakfast sponsored by the Citizens Crime Commission featuring a lecture by federal Judge Robert Katzmann.  Katzmann talked about the problems faced by immigrants in the legal system, including a new program that he helped birth: the Immigrant Justice Corps.

Learning more about what Katzmann is up to was fun.  Even better was this afternoon's graduation of the Parent Support Program in Kings County Family Court.  I've written about the program before, so I won't rehash it here, but it was inspiring to see the real-life impact of our efforts to rethink the child support process.  A couple of dozen fathers were honored today.  All had managed to reconnect to their kids and make meaningful child support payments in the process.  Alan Farrell, an assistant deputy commissioner at New York City's Human Resources Administration (pictured above), offered the keynote address.  But the final word of the day went to Magistrate Nicholas Palos who told the graduates, "I don't want to see you back here again!"

In truth, the last two weeks haven't been all dismal.  The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed that I wrote entitled "A Surprising Portrait of the Misdemeanor Criminal." (I didn't choose the title.)  And Corrections Today ran a nice review of my book Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Glenn Markman

One of the secrets to success in New York City has always been real estate.  This is true even for non-profit organizations like the Center for Court Innovation.  A stable and (reasonably) affordable home base is an essential prerequisite for all of the things we hope to achieve in the world -- improving New York City neighborhoods, changing the life trajectories of vulnerable individuals, spreading new ideas about how to reform the justice system, etc.

I write all of this to explain why this week has been a sad one for me.  On November 4th, longtime friend of the Center for Court Innovation Glenn Markman passed away.  In addition to being a donor to the Center, Glenn was a real estate broker for Cushman and Wakefield.  A few years ago, we worked with Glenn to figure out where the headquarters of the Center should be for the next decade.  The assignment was to find a space that we could afford, that was easy to reach for visitors from out of town, and that provided access to all of our operating projects in the five boroughs and Newark.

While we are a decent-sized non-profit, the Center was a small client in Glenn's portfolio.  He certainly had clients that were more high-profile as well.  But I never felt like we received less than Glenn's full attention.  He worked diligently to find us multiple options and to help negotiate terms once we decided that we wanted to stay in west Midtown.

In short, Glenn helped provide us with a good home.  In the years since, I've gotten to know Glenn outside of work as well.  He was a stand-up guy.  He loved Brooklyn and saw the potential in the borough well before it became an international brand.  He was devoted to his family and talked about his kids with the kind of passion that you hope to see in fathers.  And he was committed to the idea of "giving back" that went beyond the usual platitudes.  I will miss him.  My thoughts go out to his family.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Justice Reform in North London

I have spent the better part of this week in London checking in on the work of our friends and partners at the Centre for Justice Innovation UK.  

The highlight of my visit was a trip to the Highbury Magistrates Court in north London, a large, grey building that sends a forbidding message to defendants and public alike.  

With the active encouragement of several magistrates, the Centre is working to create a small problem-solving office in the courthouse that will serve low-level defendants who are not currently being aided by Probation. The office will be staffed by the local Citizens Advice Bureau, a charity that provides walk-in assistance to residents with housing, consumer debt, and other problems. Their staffer will perform assessments and link defendants to community-based services. 

The project is in some ways a modest one; once operational, it will serve a limited number of people in a single courthouse.  Still, it represents an important foot in the door.  If all goes well, the Centre will hopefully be able to build on this foundation and add additional components in the days to come. 

In talking to the magistrates about why they have championed this project for minor offenders, they pointed to the example of the Red Hook Community Justice Center and mentioned the research about the importance of procedural justice as key motivating factors.  

I look forward to seeing how things progress in north London.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Broken Windows Policing

This morning, the Manhattan Institute sponsored a briefing entitled, "20 Years of Broken Windows Policing: What's Ahead for Public Safety in New York City?"  The panel featured NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Citizens Crime Commission Executive Director Richard Aborn, and former NY State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin.

In framing the conversation, moderator Errol Louis began by arguing that the public consensus about how to keep New York City safe is in the process of unraveling as broken windows policing has come under fire from the media, elected officials, and the advocacy community.

In response, Commissioner Bratton launched a spirited defense of broken windows policing, making the case that addressing "incivility" has not only been crucial to reducing crime in New York City over the past generation, but will continue to be a crucial tactic as the NYPD moves forward under his leadership.  Bratton argued that, contrary to some impressions, New Yorkers are demanding quality-of-life enforcement from the police, pointing out that the vast majority of misdemeanor arrests in the city are the direct result of complaints made by local residents via 911 or 311 calls.

While Bratton and the other panelists all defended broken windows policing, they also acknowledged that this brand of enforcement needs to be done "constitutionally" and "consistently" across different parts of the city.

Vance called for community engagement with law enforcement, precinct-level diversion of minor cases out of the courts, and a significant investment in rethinking the handling of misdemeanor cases in general.  In essence, Vance was making the same argument that we have made in advancing community courts: that a misdemeanor case is a window of opportunity, a moment to intervene meaningfully in an individual's life through the provision of services rather than jail sanctions.

Both Vance and Richard Aborn talked about decriminalizing certain kinds of minor misbehavior.  In addition, Aborn talked about creating neighborhood panels that would engage local residents in resolving minor cases without a formal court hearing.  Here again, Aborn was echoing the logic behind several Center for Court Innovation programs, including youth court and our peacemaking experiments.

At several points, the panelists pointed out that the reductions in crime in New York have been accompanied by significant reductions in the use of jail and prison.  Michael Benjamin explicitly credited alternative-to-incarceration programs and drug courts with helping to achieve this result.

A number of the panelists also highlighted the need to enhance the legitimacy of the police, particularly in minority neighborhoods.  This too has been an area of emphasis for the Center for Court Innovation.

Will the NYPD figure out a way to continue to reap the benefits of broken windows policing while addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised with its implementation?  It will be fascinating to see how things unfold in the days to come.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why Art?

Last night, the Center for Court Innovation was honored by Groundswell at their annual benefit.  For those who haven't been, I recommend the event highly.  Each year, Groundswell gets their friends to donate art for a live and silent auction.  The result is an event that is one part gallery show, one part cocktail party, and one part educational seminar.  The bottom line is that I learned a lot and had a great time doing so.

When it was my time to speak, I was asked the question: "Why does the Center for Court Innovation use art to engage young people?"  This is what I said:

You know, whole books and entire careers have been devoted to trying to answer the question “why art”?  I’m not sure in the 60 seconds I've been allotted here tonight that I have anything original to add to the mix.  I will say that I believe (to paraphrase Leon Botstein) that the visual arts are not a luxury good but one of the vital signs by which we determine the health and vibrancy of our society. And I believe in the power of art to inspire and stimulate change at the neighborhood level, because I've seen it happen with my own two eyes.

But really, instead of answering “why art?” I want to answer a slightly different question: “why Groundswell?”  Why of all the hundreds of wonderful organizations in NYC have we chosen to partner with Groundswell again and again in so many different locations?

The answer is simple: even though the Center for Court Innovation and Groundswell are very different organizations with very different cultures, we share some basic values.  At our core, we both believe that young people, including kids who have been involved in the justice system, can be a tremendous force for good in New York. And we believe that if we tap into this force, we can help make our neighborhoods safer and stronger without sending more people to Rikers Island.

For the past two decades, we have been proving that this is possible in places like Red Hook and Brownsville and Crown Heights.  Our partnership with Groundswell has been an important part of this story.  What Groundswell brings to the table is something pretty magical.  They bring a remarkable ability to engage even the most difficult-to-reach kids.  And they bring an ability to transform symbols of disorder and despair into works of art and sources of community pride.  That’s why we keep turning to Groundswell – because they deliver the goods again and again.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Friend Tony

One of my college housemates, Anthony Innes Stephenson, passed away last week.

I met Tony my freshman year at Wesleyan.  One of our first encounters was a game of one-on-one basketball. It was a classic male bonding/testing-each-other-out moment.  It still pains me to admit this, but he absolutely smoked me -- I may not have scored a single basket.  Tony possessed a quick first step and an accurate jumper that I was always late in trying to block.  (Once I figured out that Tony was one of the rare right-handed players who preferred to shoot going to his left, I was at least able to keep up with him a bit.)

Over the years, I played countless hours of basketball with and against Tony.  If you buy the argument that sports reveals character (and I do), what Tony's game said about him was this: he was a gentle soul.  Unlike so many other playground warriors, Tony was not driven to dominate or impose his will on a game, although he most certainly had the talent to do so.  He was a graceful and gracious athlete who I think appreciated the game more for its aesthetic qualities than for some of the other reasons that people typically gravitate towards sports (exercise, teamwork, competition, etc).

The other arena where Tony's personal qualities revealed themselves was his writing.  Man, he was a good writer.  At his best, he was a bit like Woody Allen: neurotic, self-deprecating, caustic, funny as hell.  Digging back through his letters and emails, I can't help but smile at his capacity for mockery. Although he took aim at everyone and everything in sight (including, it must be said, himself), Tony's jibes never felt mean-spirited to me.  He didn't seek to hurt or humiliate, just to expose pretensions and communicate insights through humor.  I can't speak for others, but I certainly learned things by seeing myself reflected through Tony's prose.

In the years since we graduated from college, I have seen Tony infrequently -- he rarely traveled outside of his beloved San Francisco.  I saw him last six months ago.  His hair may have been grey but he had the same boyish grin and mischievous perspective on the world.  We had dinner in Chinatown and talked for a couple of hours about the usual stuff: basketball, family, politics, mutual friends and acquaintances.  When I left, I made a mental note to myself that I wanted to correspond with him more frequently, that I needed more of Tony's (authorial) voice in my life.  I am sad that I won't get this chance.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Powerful Moral Compass

Last night the New York City Bar hosted a panel honoring the late Alfred Siegel and his legacy of advancing youth justice reform.  It was a lovely event. Dozens of Alfred's friends, family members, work colleagues and partners came out to celebrate Alfred's many contributions to advancing the cause of justice in New York.  Happily, they were joined by a number of people who had never met Alfred but who were just interested in learning more about the man who served as a powerful moral compass for just about everyone who knew him.  I think they left with a full portrait of a man who managed to do a lot of good in the world.

While there were many poignant moments, they were balanced both by moments of levity and by discussion of a set of concrete Family Court and Criminal Court reforms that Alfred helped realize.  I loved hearing from Alfred's two sons, both of whom exhibit so many of the qualities that I loved in Alfred: poise, self-deprecation, decency.  Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance captured Alfred's sense of humor and his unique ability to get things done.  Adam Mansky, who moderated the panel, captured him best when he said:

Alfred was not an outside agitator, standing apart from the system; nor was he paralyzed by its injustices. Rather, he continually engaged the justice system in the process of change and improvement, using every trick in the book to push his shoulder against the yoke of bureaucratic inertia, business as usual, fear of change and petty politics; and in doing so, improved the lives of young people and their families, as well as adults caught up in the system.

At the Center for Court Innovation, we've created a special scholarship fund in Alfred's memory which will help defray tuition expenses for a current or prospective student at John Jay College.  For more information, click here

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pretrial in NYC -- Then and Now

Yesterday, New York City's Criminal Justice Agency held a special luncheon at John Jay College to celebrate dozens of employees who had been with the agency for more than 25 years (including the agency's director, Jerry McElroy).

For those that don't know, CJA is New York City's pretrial agency (I sit on their board).  They conduct pre-arraignment interviews with criminal defendants in order to provide a recommendation to judges about the likelihood that a defendant will return to court.  In this way, CJA has facilitated the release of hundreds of thousands of defendants over the years and helped reduce the number of New Yorkers who are held on Rikers Island.

In addition to performing this vital function, CJA also operates two supervised release programs for felony defendants (one in Queens, the other in Manhattan) and conducts original research at the behest of criminal justice officials.  

My first encounter with CJA happened some 20 years ago during the early planning for the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  When we wanted to make a case to funders or elected officials for why a new response to misdemeanor crime was needed in southwest Brooklyn, we relied on data generously and comprehensively supplied by CJA.  (Special thanks to Frank Sergi at CJA, who was enormously patient in coaching me through the statistics.  Special thanks as well to Peter Kiers, pictured above, who has always known that I was in the pretrial business even when I didn't realize it myself.)

The highlight of yesterday's event for me were the speeches by two of CJA's "founding fathers" -- Herb Sturz and Jeremy Travis. Both talked about CJA's rich history and how the agency grew from a small pilot project based in Manhattan and operated by the Vera Institute of Justice into a citywide organization with hundreds of employees. (For anyone interested in CJA's history, including the role played by the Son of Sam, I encourage you to check out Malcolm Feeley's excellent Court Reform on Trial from Quid Pro Books.)

Several of the speakers yesterday made the point that we are living through the most exciting moment for the pretrial field since the Bail Reform Act on 1964.  Risk and needs assessment, more informed decision making, and reducing the use of detention are hot issues at the moment in the world of criminal justice.  I am hoping that CJA (and the Center for Court Innovation, to be honest) have a big role to play in advancing these ideas in the not-too-distant future, both here in New York and around the country.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cathy Potler

One of the things I like best about my job is that I get a chance to interact with dozens of public officials who put the lie to negative stereotypes about government workers.  Cathy Potler, the executive director of the New York City Board of Correction who passed away recently, was one such person.  Hard-working, thoughtful, energetic...Cathy embodied the ethic of government service.

I got to know Cathy through my service on the New York City Board of Correction.   Cathy shepherded me around Rikers Island several times over the past couple of years.  I always learned a lot from our conversations -- her knowledge of the facility was truly staggering.  Her knowledge was matched by her commitment to reform.  She was truly committed to helping New York City's jails live up to the highest possible standards -- and to advancing values like common sense, decency, and the rule of law.   She will be missed.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Still The Vision Lingers On

Last week I saw Billy Bragg in concert.  It might have been the fifth or sixth time I've seen him -- I can't remember for sure.  It was a memorable show since it happened to coincide with the referendum on Scottish independence, an issue that Bragg seemed to predict back in 2002 with "Take Down the Union Jack." The truth of the matter is that I've seen Billy Bragg perform in a variety of different political contexts -- on the eve of Obama's election, during John Major's reign as prime minister, etc. -- and he's always got something interesting to say.

From my perspective, there is much to admire about Billy Bragg's perseverance over the years.  Somehow, he has managed to simultaneously evolve while staying resolutely true to himself.

As is often the case with me, my thoughts about pop culture bleed into thoughts about work.

This week I also spent some time at the Midtown Community Court, now in its 21st year of operation.  The Midtown team seems nearly perfectly balanced to me -- a combination of old heads and new blood. The facility is undergoing a seemingly never-ending renovation at the moment.  While this poses all sorts of challenges for the staff, the quality of the work continues to impress.  Like Billy Bragg, Midtown is managing to stay true to its founding ideals while also continuing to innovate.

One example of this is the UPNEXT program which provides parenting skills and job training to non-custodial fathers, many of them with court involvement.  (One source of referrals for UPNEXT is our parent support program in Brooklyn.)  It is fair to say that the founders of the Midtown Community Court never dreamed of anything quite like UPNEXT.  But the program is entirely consistent with the  spirit of creative problem-solving that has animated Midtown since 1993.

Artwork created by UPNEXT participants is currently being featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  (For more on Midtown's partnership with MoMA, click here.)  Here are a few quick photos from the opening of the exhibit on Friday:

With a major assist from artist/educator Shellyne Rodriguez, UPNEXT participants created silhouettes inspired by the art of Kara Walker.

Jeff Hobbs, one of the original Midtown Community Court staffers, and me.

Bo Twiggs spoke eloquently about the partnership between Midtown and MoMA.

Wall text explaining the artwork.

More than a dozen staffers from the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation came to the exhibit, including three of the seven people who have served as Midtown project director.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Warrior of Procedural Justice

Tonight Victoria Pratt was sworn in as the chief judge of the Newark Municipal Court before several hundred people in downtown Newark.  I've admired Judge Pratt from the first time I saw her in action.  As part of our Newark Community Solutions project, she helps link low-level offenders in Newark to treatment and community service instead of fines and jail.  Judge Pratt is blessed with a courtroom presence that effortlessly communicates both compassion and respect for the law.  If procedural justice didn't exist, the idea would have had to be invented to describe what seems to come to her naturally.

The swearing-in ceremony had a distinctly Newark Community Solutions flavor.  It began with an invocation by Raul Hernandez, who oversees alternative sanctions for the project.  Nearly every speaker referenced Judge Pratt's leadership at Newark Community Solutions.  Mayor Ras Baraka spoke of how proud he is of the national and international visitors that come to see Newark Community Solutions in action.  Julien Neals, one of Judge Pratt's predecessors as chief judge, talked about how Newark Community Solutions was a "labor of love" for Pratt and that it demonstrated that "courts can be a place of construction."  He went on to predict that in the days to come, Pratt will spread the philosophy, energy and "positive action" of Newark Community Solutions to the rest of the courthouse.  Judge Fern Fisher from New York had perhaps my favorite line, labeling Judge Pratt a "warrior of procedural justice."  

It always nice to see good people and hard work rewarded.  Congrats to Judge Pratt and the rest of the Newark Community Solutions team.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Twenty Years

Today marks my 20th anniversary working at either the Center for Court Innovation or one of its associated programs.  The photo above isn't quite that old -- more like 16 or 17 years -- but it gives a sense of how young I was when I started working here.

I write a lot about the unique contribution that the Center for Court Innovation makes to the world. What I don't talk about so much is the impact that the organization has had on my life.  First and foremost, it has provided me with an institutional base as I have become a full-fledged adult.  Getting married, buying a house, having children -- I have been able to undertake all of these things (and more) thanks to an assist from the Center.  

More than this, the Center for Court Innovation has helped shape my personality and character.  I have had the honor of working alongside people of extraordinary talent and integrity for two decades. These include visionary thinkers, instinctive managers, effective communicators, amazing caregivers, relentless advocates, creative organizers and many, many others.  I have tried to incorporate the best of what I have learned into my life, both at home and at work.  

I've probably said more than enough already, but I did not want to let the occasion pass without acknowledging the huge debt I feel to my colleagues, both past and present. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Hand of a Government Man

Now that Lou Reed has passed away, I think the celebrity I see most often on the streets of New York is David Byrne.  This week alone I saw him twice -- once on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and once at a restaurant in Tribeca.

Talking Heads was a massively popular band when I was a teen (at least among my little socioeconomic cohort).  I used to joke that Little Creatures was issued to all freshmen at Wesleyan along with their dorm keys -- it felt like the album was on constant rotation back in 1985.

I liked the Talking Heads as much as the next guy, but if you had asked my 18-year-old self his opinion, he would have ranked them far below groups like the Clash and the Ramones and R.E.M. Fast forward to today and I listen to an awful lot of Talking Heads and very little of these other bands.  Why is this?

I think Talking Heads' music has aged exceptionally well.  Sometimes when I listen to Bruce Springsteen albums of that era (e.g. Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love) I wince at the cheesy synthesizers and dated production values.  This almost never happens with Talking Heads. Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues sound particularly fresh to me.

Both in terms of sound and words, there is something about Talking Heads that resonates with the particular moment that we are living through. Their embrace of African and Caribbean music certainly fits in with the mash-up musical culture of the moment.  More than this, there is a jittery anxiety about the band that speaks to the 24-7 nature of the wired world -- their best songs move fast and are larded with clever one liners ("facts all come with points of view"!) that stick in your mind long after the music ends.  All in all, the perfect soundtrack for my daily commute into Penn Station.

Notwithstanding my endorsement of the nervous propulsion of the Talking Heads, here's wishing you a restful and relaxing Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rethinking Youth Justice

Last week marked the final game of the season for Siegel’s Sluggers, the Center for Court Innovation's softball team named in honor of Alfred Siegel, our deputy director who passed away earlier this year.  While our team was narrowly defeated on the field, it accomplished its goal off the field. The team embodied Alfred Siegel’s gift of bringing people together.  All sections of our organization were represented on the team: research, technical assistance, operations, development, administration, etc. I have no doubt it would have brought a smile to Alfred’s face.  

Speaking of Alfred, we have created a small conference room in his honor, complete with a representative quotation on the wall: "You work in the system long enough, you see things that you think could be done better." I think the quote speaks to Alfred’s common sense, pragmatism, and modesty.

I'm sure these same qualities will be on display on October 8th at 6pm, when the New York City Bar hosts a panel in Alfred's honor.  Entitled Rethinking Youth Justice: A Panel Discussion on the Legacy of Alfred Siegel and the Future of Reform in New York, the panel will look both backwards and forwards, examining the work of Alfred's career and how he helped set the stage for future juvenile justice reform in New York.  The event is open to the public and will feature some of the great and the good whose lives intersected with Alfred, including Elizabeth Glazer from Mayor de Blasio's administration and Michael Jacobson of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For the Record

Today, the New York Post ran an op-ed criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “empty” anti-violence plan.  The op-ed takes particular issue with the Mayor’s commitment to spreading the Cure Violence model, which seeks to halt retaliatory violence by sending trained “violence interrupters” out on the streets to mediate conflicts before they escalate.

The article makes several references to public health programs run by the Center for Court Innovation (we have helped implement the Cure Violence model in Crown Heights and the South Bronx) and to a research report that we issued documenting the results of our experiment in Crown Heights.

The author of the opinion piece claims that there is “no evidence” to suggest that the public health approach to gun violence works.  This is not accurate.   In fact, our evaluation of the Crown Heights project found a statistically significant 20 percent decrease in shooting rates in the neighborhood over three years when compared with the rate of shootings in three adjacent neighborhoods with similar demographics and crime rates.

These results are consistent with the findings from a series of independent evaluations that have documented the positive impact of the Cure Violence model, including a 2009 study from Chicago that found a 16-28 percent reduction in gun violence in 4 of 7 program neighborhoods, and a 2010 study in Baltimore which again showed statistically significant violence reductions in all program areas. Based on these evaluations, the Cure Violence model is included as a “promising” program in the federal register of evidence-based programs (

The literature on Cure Violence is still emerging, but the model has generated enough evidence to suggest that it is an approach worth attempting on a broader scale.  In the months ahead, we hope to continue to add to the literature.  We are currently participating in an independent evaluation conducted by the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College that will examine the impact of the Cure Violence model in two New York City neighborhoods.  With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers will document whether the program helps change social norms in violent communities.

In sum, through our work with Cure Violence and other crime prevention initiatives, we are doing what we always do at the Center for Court Innovation: testing new approaches to difficult problems and documenting the results so that the field of criminal justice can learn from our experience.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I spent the bulk of this beautiful summer day touring Brooklyn alongside my friends at Groundswell. For those who don't know the organization, Groundswell is a youth service/arts/community development organization that puts young people to work creating public murals.  We have partnered with them on a number of such projects, including several that are currently in process in Brownsville.  

These projects accomplish several goals at once.  They help send the message that someone cares about the physical environment of the neighborhood.  And they engage dozens of young people, many of them with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system, in positive, pro-social activities.

In addition to helping to advance our mission to reduce crime and change the life trajectories of our program participants, the murals also stand alone as beautiful works of art.

This is a shot of a mural called "Intersections Humanized" just off Pitkin Boulevard in Brownsville. 

This is a fragment of a work in progress that is located on the side of a grocery store located across from a public housing development in Brownsville.  Before Groundswell went to work, the wall was full of tags and peeling paint. 

I met a number of artists and young people on the tour, all of whom were highly motivated to make both art and a positive contribution to their community.  In this respect, they embodied the values that have made Groundswell such a good partner over the years.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Curing Violence

In Harlem this morning, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by an array of leaders from the city council and various city agencies, announced an ambitious new effort to prevent gun violence by expanding the Cure Violence model across the five boroughs. The Mayor highlighted SOS Crown Heights as "the exemplar" of the public health approach to violence reduction in New York.  He also cited the strength of the city's "partnership with the Center for Court Innovation" as a key building block going forward.  In addition, our study, "Testing a Public Health Approach to Gun Violence" was cited several times.

But best of all, our own Ife Charles (pictured above) was one of the featured speakers at the announcement. I've written about Ife before so it came as no surprise to me that she was arguably the most powerful and persuasive speaker at the event.  Ife talked eloquently about the importance of collaboration in combating violence; she argued that to address a problem as multi-faceted and as well-entrenched as violence requires the work of multiple city agencies (including both criminal justice agencies and social service agencies) and dozens of local actors, including clergy and community groups.

Inter-agency collaboration is difficult of course.  Our own research suggests that it is one of the leading causes of failure in criminal justice reform.  While it remains to be seen how effective the Cure Violence replications will be at reducing shootings in New York, the good news from today is that there is a genuine commitment on the part of multiple partners to tackling a problem that has festered for too long.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Defying Gravity

Last night I went to see the musical Wicked on Broadway.  I had seen the show six or seven years ago when my friend Ana Gasteyer had one of the lead roles.  Yesterday, we were celebrating my daughter Milly's birthday, which is a happy occasion of course, but I returned to Wicked without much enthusiasm.  Knowing that the show has been around since the early 2000s, I expected a stale, soulless production.  And since I had already seen it once before, I knew there would be no narrative surprises in store for me.

Despite my preconceived notions, I found myself taken in by the show.  For anyone who hasn't seen it, Wicked features numerous great songs and a moving story that has something interesting to say about friendship, celebrity culture, and the challenges of adolescence.  Despite being one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, Wicked still remains fresh and vital, at least to my eyes and ears.

I bring all of this up because I had a similar experience earlier in the day when I visited Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, our new program that combines pre-trial supervised release and post-adjudication alternatives to incarceration.  In many respects, what we are trying to do with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives is to bring some of the principles and practices of the Red Hook Community Justice Center into the centralized criminal court in downtown Brookyn.

This is no small undertaking.  As anyone who has visited Red Hook can attest, part of the magic of the project is its intimate scale and pilot setting.   By contrast, the downtown courthouse in Brooklyn is a mammoth building that houses dozens of courtrooms and hundreds of judges, attorneys, administrators and others.  I came to my site visit to Brooklyn Justice Initiatives with some trepidation that we would be able to replicate the feeling of Red Hook within this larger institution.

I'm happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by my visit.  Just as Wicked has somehow managed to keep the same DNA over the course of thousands of performances, so too has Brooklyn Justice Initiatives managed to import a good chunk of Red Hook into a very different context.

I'm still trying to piece together how we have managed this trick.  Some of it is clearly the physical space that we occupy within the building, which we have been able to renovate with the help of the Probitas Foundation and the architect Alta Indelman.  And some of it is certainly due to the quality of the staff that we have been able to attract.  Both our staff and our space take pains to communicate a message of respect to the defendants who find themselves as clients in our program.  This is procedural justice 101.

I hope it is not self-delusion, but I also think there is something special about the Center for Court Innovation's approach -- about our willingness to roll up our sleeves and work alongside judges and probation officers and attorneys and our desire to change the justice system from within -- that connects Brooklyn Justice Initiatives to the Red Hook Community Justice Center and to all of our other operating projects.  I think our organizational culture is alive and well in the downtown courthouse.

It is still early days with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives.  We will have to wait to see if we are able to keep alive the spirit I have attempted to describe over the course of many years.  But all of the initial signs, both in terms of the qualitative experience and the quantitative results, are pointed in the right direction.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Video on Demand

Telling stories is a big part of what we do at the Center for Court Innovation.  We often find ourselves trying to communicate complicated justice reform ideas to skeptical audiences, whether they be funders, community groups, or system insiders.  In recent years, video has become a larger and larger part of our communications effort.  This reflects improvements in technology that have made it easier and cheaper to create and disseminate short films.  It also reflects the talents of our communications director, Robert Wolf, who has become an adept filmmaker.   

You can see the latest videos from the Center by checking out our YouTube channel.  To give you just a taste of what you will find, here are the top 10 most viewed videos from our website over the past year:

1.  Drug Courts: Personal Stories -- first-person interviews with drug court graduates from across New York State featuring former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye.

2.  Family Voices in Juvenile Justice -- a guide to Family Court for parents whose children have delinquency cases.

3.  Changing Lives: The Story of the Center for Court Innovation -- an introduction to the Center that premiered at our 15th anniversary celebration featuring two of our program graduates. 

4.  Why Procedural Justice Matters: Tom R. Tyler at Community Justice 2012 --Yale Law Professor Tom Tyler's presentation at our community justice conference in Washington DC.

5.  Fundamentals of Procedural Fairness -- a "Procedural Justice 101" presentation that seeks to explain the basic principles. 

6.  Testing New Ideas: Evidence, Innovation and Community Courts -- created with the help of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, this video highlights community courts across the US.

7.  Justice That Works: The Midtown Community Court -- a description of the Midtown Community Court, created as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the project.

8.  Attendance Video -- a look at an experiment that we launched to address chronic truancy in Harlem.

9.  Talking It Through: A Teen-Police Dialogue -- created by the Youth Justice Board, our after-school youth leadership program, this video seeks to encourage police-youth conversations.

10.  Failure: Public Policy’s Stepladder to Success -- an excerpt from a panel convened by the Urban Institute as part of the roll-out of the book Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure.

Monday, July 28, 2014

More Informed Decisions

When the Midtown Community Court was first launched in the 1990s, technology played an important role in the design of the project.  Together with our partners at the Vera Institute of Justice, we designed a brand-new application that sought to help the judge and others manage cases, track compliance with alternatives to incarceration, and document results.  The resulting application received the Windows World Open Award for public sector innovation.

The next iteration of the Midtown technology was called the Justice Center Application and was designed to accompany the development of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  This cutting-edge case management system leveraged two technologies that were new at the time: the Internet and a web browser interface.

Remarkably, with regular tweaks and modifications, we have been able to use the Justice Center Application as our primary case management system for more than a decade, not just in Red Hook but in multiple other locations.  Each year, it has enabled us to keep tabs on thousands of defendants and others performing a broad range of services in a variety of different settings. The application has served us enormously well, but its days are basically numbered.  The technology landscape had changed substantially since we developed the Justice Center Application.  Cloud computing and the ability to use files and applications over the Internet now allows organizations to purchase computing, storage and applications on an as-needed basis.  In addition, there are now more flexible ways to develop software that enable technologists to fix bugs and add features on the fly.

With the help of Cahoot Court Systems, we are currently working to take advantage of these advances.  Together, we are building a new case management system that will (knock wood) not only serve the needs of multiple Center for Court Innovation programs, but also be a tool that will be useful to problem-solving courts and alternative-to-incarceration programs across the country and around the world.

Among other features, the new application will be able to maintain multiple assessments for each client, enabling clinicians to know, at any given moment, how many times a person has been assessed, the assessment instrument that was used, and the answers that the client provided.  Where underlying licenses allow, the application will be able to import questions from 3rd party-created assessment instruments, eliminating the need for duplicate data entry.  Scanned copies of documents, images and electronically delivered attachments (criminal histories, arrest reports, orders of protection) can all be attached to case files.  All of which will deliver more complete information to case managers and others who are responsible for tracking client progress. 

Crucially, the application will be adaptable to phones and tablets, allowing for portability and flexibility -- frontline staff will not be tied to a desktop computer.  And a dashboard feature will give managers and researchers real-time access to the metrics and information they identify as important.

We are hoping to pilot test the new application this fall.  Stay tuned for more updates as we proceed...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Youth Court in Brooklyn

The timing was unfortunate (smack in the middle of the US-Belgium World Cup game), but this afternoon's youth court graduation ceremony in Brooklyn was a special one for a few reasons.

It was, to my knowledge, the first time that we have done a joint event bringing together our youth courts from Brownsville and Red Hook.  As a manager, cross-pollination makes me happy, particularly when it isn't forced from above but bubbles up organically from the ground level.  The combined ceremony made for a bigger event, with more graduates, more inductees, and a larger audience.

The other thing that made the event special was the setting (a beautiful ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn) and the keynote speech by Judge John Gleeson of the US District Court.

Gleeson addressed the teen youth court members as his "little brothers and sisters in the administration of justice."  He called youth court "a breath of fresh air" for its emphasis on restoring the community, treating respondents with respect, and providing opportunities for young people to interact with the justice system in a positive way.  And he closed by making the case that youth courts could help play a role in changing perceptions of justice and addressing the problem of over-incarceration. "Too many people think of courts as portals to prison," said Gleeson.  I'm not sure I've ever heard a better articulation of the power and potential of the youth court model.

Gleeson's remarks were echoed by several of the youth court members who spoke.  One in particular talked about how he had initially joined the program to satisfy community service requirements for school but soon realized that the youth court was teaching him "how to be a better citizen."

Several dozen teenagers from Red Hook and Brownsville participated in the ceremony today.  I have no idea how many will end up becoming lawyers when they grow up.  But I don't have much doubt that many of them have become and will remain active participants in their communities as a result of their involvement in youth court.  And that's something to feel good about as an American, no matter how the US-Belgium game turned out.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Alternate Universe

I have written about my admiration for the Vera Institute of Justice and its founder Herb Sturz on numerous occasions.  While many of Herb's accomplishments are well known, one that gets less attention is the novel he co-wrote in 1958.   I haven't read the book (which is called Reapers of the Storm -- look for it on eBay), but I love the fact that he wrote it.  I think it speaks to the kind of creativity that Herb sought to bring to the criminal justice system and the non-profit sector.  

I have tried to emulate this value at the Center for Court Innovation.  In job interviews, I always ask applicants about their outside interests.  Sometimes (not always) this offers a glimpse of their inner creativity.  Over the years, I have worked alongside serious photographers, poets, stationery designers, songwriters, chefs, and musicians (among other disciplines).  I think this is a big part of what makes coming to work fun for me.  

All of which brings me to last night and a wonderful book party to celebrate the simultaneous release of two novels -- The Alternate Universe and The Escape -- by Rob Wolf.  I have had the distinct pleasure of reading Rob's work for the past 15 years.  As the Center for Court Innovation's communications director, he has been responsible for creating many of our best products, including podcasts and films and white papers.  He has won several awards from The National Council on Crime and Delinquency for his efforts to further public understanding of justice issues.  

Rob is quite simply a great writer.  His prose is crisp, clear, and tight.  Now he is bringing his talent not to the task of advancing criminal justice reform but to the challenge of fiction.  His two new books are science fiction stories with a heavy dose of time travel.  If the rest of the books are as good as the excerpt he read last night, which featured a complicated and humorous exchange with a robot manservant, we are all in for a treat. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Basketball and Mortality

I was excited to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals tonight, which figured to be intensely competitive.  Instead, I'm watching the Miami Heat have their hearts ripped out by the relentless San Antonio Spurs.  

As it happens, basketball and death have been on my mind a lot of late.   I feel like I have a weekly date with my own mortality.  It’s my Wednesday night pick-up basketball game at a local high school in Brooklyn. 
I get noticeably worse at basketball with almost every passing week.  I also get injured on a regular basis -- over the past year or so, I have broken a finger, pulled a hamstring and torn a calf muscle.  My body is sending me pretty unequivocal message: stop playing.

My ego seconds that emotion.  My skills peaked more than two decades ago.  Now I’m at the far right end of the bell curve in terms of my playing ability, the place where the graph flattens out to zero.  Over the years, I have gone from one of the better guys in my weekly game to one of the worst.

But still I keep going back.  Why?  It is a question I ask myself often. 

Peer pressure is not the reason -- after all, most of my closest friends have already given up the sport, some more than a decade ago.  

Nor am I trying to re-live past glories.  The truth is that I was never much of a player.  I lacked the strength, height and grace under pressure necessary to play the game at a high level.  

But despite this lack of success, I have always thought of myself as a ballplayer.  And I still do. 

Why should my sense of my self be tied up with a children’s game?  Perhaps it is because I fell in love with the game as a child.  Growing up in Washington DC in the 1980s, basketball offered me an identity, a sense of belonging to a community beyond my family, and a means of bridging the racial divide in a highly-segregated city. 

Children are often encouraged to play organized sports because doing so offers important “life lessons.” From playing basketball in my formative years, I learned how to make friends with people of diverse backgrounds.  I learned how to sublimate my ego for the greater good of a team. And I learned how to adapt to the whims of cruel and arbitrary authority figures (also known as “coaches”).  I call upon these lessons almost every day as an adult.

But these days basketball offers me lessons not about life but about death.  My diminishing skills on the court are like a dress rehearsal for the aging process that all of us eventually must face in the real world. Basketball is forcing me to wrestle with my own frailties on a weekly basis.  It may not always be fun, but it does feel valuable.  

Getting Connected

Tonight, the Youth Justice Board, our after-school leadership program that seeks to bring the voice of New York City teens into policymaking decisions, unveiled its latest product during a presentation at the Manhattan Referral Center for High School Alternatives.

In partnership with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, the Youth Justice Board has created a new website dedicated to providing disconnected young people with access to the kinds of resources they need to get back in school and working towards a better future.   This is the same partnership that produced one of my all-time favorite Center for Court Innovation products -- the I Got Arrested!  Now What? comic book -- so there are good reasons to be excited about the new website, which should go online in the next couple of months.

The website is designed primarily to be used on a smartphone and offers answers to common questions faced by young people who have dropped out of school, as well as links to a variety of social service providers.  After a keynote address by the great Tim Lisante of the New York City Department of Education, the members of the Youth Justice Board walked the audience through how a typical teen would use the website.  They were so much more serious and poised than I was at a similar age, it isn't even funny.  The fact that the crowd included high-ranking officials from the Mayor's Office and a range of government and non-profit agencies didn't faze them in the slightest.

Tonight marks the culmination of the Youth Justice Board's efforts to study and combat chronic truancy, which included issuing the report From Absent to Present: Reducing Teen Chronic Absenteeism in New York City.  Next year's cohort will take on a new subject: creating new diversion options for the NYPD.  I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Food for the Soul

I've written about the Sloan Public Service Awards several times in the past, so I won't wax rhapsodic here, but I could not let the annual awarding of these prizes to exemplary New York City officials pass without some comment.  This year was the final year of my three-year term on the selection committee, which is organized by the Fund for the City of New York under the leadership of Mary McCormick.  Each year, the process culminates in a day-long bus trip to the work places of the winners along with a ceremony at Cooper Union with the Mayor.

Anyone who has ever read an upsetting story in the paper about government waste or corruption or incompetence would be well-advised to attend the ceremony.  There is so much good work being done across this vast city by civil servants that goes underreported.  This year's winners of the Sloan Awards exemplify this reality.  When I was a teen, Ronald Reagan famously said that "government isn't the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  Anyone who still believes this should  read the stories of the Sloan Public Service Award winners.  Kudos to them all.

Friday, May 30, 2014

On Being a Mensch

Yesterday's presentation of the Kathryn McDonald Award at the New York City Bar was a bittersweet affair.  It was a chance to celebrate the many contributions that Alfred Siegel made to improving justice in New York.  But it was also a stark reminder of all that we have lost with Alfred's passing.  He really was a special man.  Irreplaceable. 

This point was made emphatically by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in his introduction of Alfred.  Judge Lippman spoke warmly of his decades-long relationship with Alfred.  He also talked about being in meetings and seeing everyone turn to Alfred for help in understanding confusing situations.  

I have had the same experience on more occasions than I can remember.  This was a point I tried to make in accepting the McDonald Award on Alfred's behalf.  This is what I said:

I miss Alfred every day, but I’m especially missing him today.  I would have loved to have seen his discomfort with being the center of attention.  I also know that he would have had something funny and gracious and self-deprecating to say as he accepted this honor. 

Although he would no doubt have tried to deflect attention from himself, there is also no doubt that this award would have meant a lot to Alfred, particularly given how much he admired Judge Lippman and how much he cared about improving the Family Court and the way that New York City works with delinquent young people.

I’ve talked and written a lot about Alfred since he passed away, trying to process my grief and express what was remarkable about his life.   He had so many wonderful qualities, including a keen intelligence, a sharp wit, and a deep understanding of how this City functions and how to get stuff done amidst chaos and conflicting interests. 

But when I think about Alfred, the first thing that always pops into my head is a Yiddish word.  Because Alfred was first and foremost a mensch. 

Being a mensch meant that Alfred took enormous care with personal relationships.  He was a steadfast friend, father, and colleague.  Unlike many men of his generation who struggle to express such things, Alfred communicated love and warmth easily.  He was well and truly loved in return. 
Alfred’s brand of menschness (if that’s a word) meant that he was a good guy to deal with – he was an honest broker and a reliable narrator.  But Alfred’s integrity was also at the root of his effectiveness as a justice reformer. 

Over the years, Alfred served as a moral compass for hundreds and hundreds of people.  Elected officials, commissioners, even chief judges looked to Alfred for advice because they knew that he saw clearly the right thing to do in almost any situation.  He was no ideologue.  What he was was a true democrat (with a lower case “D”).  He had a rigorous insistence that everyone – regardless of their station in life -- deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.  This was his lodestar. And this is the value that we at the Center for Court Innovation are trying to carry forward in his absence. 

We are doing this in ways both big and small, from the manner in which we strive to interact with our institutional partners to the projects we are trying to advance, including a justice center in Brownsville that was a particular passion of Alfred’s and that will attempt to forge a new approach to young adults in the justice system. 

With the help of Jeremy Travis and John Jay College, we have also created a scholarship fund in Alfred’s honor.  Each year, we will help defray tuition costs for a student who is interested in a career in criminal justice and who has overcome significant challenges on the path to higher education.  Anyone who wants to learn more should check out our website.

On behalf of the Center for Court Innovation and Alfred’s family -- his wife Nancy and his sons Danny and Larry couldn’t be here today because they are on vacation in Italy – I want to thank the City Bar for this wonderful recognition of a truly wonderful mensch.