Friday, January 17, 2014

Alfred Siegel


Today was the hardest day I have experienced in my 20 years at the Center for Court Innovation.  Last night we received word that our beloved deputy director, Alfred Siegel, had a heart attack and passed away unexpectedly.  This is a truncated version of what I said at our impromptu staff meeting this morning:

I have worked with Alfred for more than 15 years.  For the last 12 of these years, our offices were next door to each other.   While I have been fortunate to work with and for many remarkable people in my time, in many ways, my relationship with Alfred has been the defining partnership of my work life.

I would exchange easily dozens if not hundreds of emails and calls and quick chats with Alfred during an average week.  Many were typical work exchanges – What’s the status of this project?  Have we heard about this grant?  And more than I care to admit were about sports – him making fun of my love of soccer, me reveling in the failures of his beloved Giants and Yankees. 

But beneath the banter and the gossip and the daily checking in was something else.  I can’t speak for Alfred, but I can tell you what I felt on my side, and that was love. 

Lots of people use the word “family” to describe their place of work.  I have always resisted this metaphor, but I can’t think of any way to describe Alfred other than as the older brother that I never had.  

Like many older brothers, he knew how to puncture my pretensions and bring me back down to earth when I got too full of myself.   And like the best older brothers, he also knew how to offer me support when my confidence was low and advice when I lost my way.  

At the end of the day, I knew I could rely on Alfred.   I knew he always had my back. 

But I was hardly alone in this.  Even at a place like the Center for Court Innovation, things go wrong all of the time.  Deadlines are missed.  Meetings go poorly.   Plans don’t come to fruition.   In these moments, Alfred would never lose his cool.  When mistakes were made, he would never point the finger at others.  Indeed, behind the scenes, he was always a voice of compassion and forgiveness and understanding. 

In sum, Alfred was a good man.  And I mean that in all senses of the word “good.”  He was a man of rare decency, integrity, and kindness.  And he was also enormously good at his job.  He had a passion for justice and he used his deep understanding of city government to make the system more fair and more humane for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden.   

Most of all, he got stuff done.   He was responsible for so many of the Center’s greatest hits – Red Hook and Harlem and Bronx Community Solutions and QUEST and so many others.   And of course, these weren’t just game changers for the Center – these projects were game changers for tens of thousands of New Yorkers who were given a chance to avoid life behind bars and get their lives back on track.

I can think of no higher praise than to say that the world is a better place because Alfred was in it.  I know that I am a better person for having known him and learned from his example. 
To be completely honest, at this particular moment, I can’t quite imagine this place without him.  But I can tell you that in the days ahead, I am determined to carry forward the things that he taught me and the values that he stood for -- treating all people with respect and dignity and trying to even the playing field on behalf of underdogs everywhere

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ill Communication

Over the last week, I've been hit by the trifecta of minor inconveniences: a cancelled flight (on my way back to New York from Minnesota), jury duty, and, a bad cold that I am still fighting as I type this.

Try as they might, none of these hassles can dampen my enthusiasm for the year ahead.  There are a lot of new projects in the offing at the Center for Court Innovation that will hopefully flower in 2014, including a new program in Brooklyn that offers both alternatives to incarceration and alternatives to bail for criminal court judges, expanded anti-violence efforts in Brooklyn and the Bronx, an effort to improve signage in courts, and an online training tool for youth justice professionals.  More on these, and other, new programs in the days ahead.

Our first new product of 2014 is Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration: Essays on Criminal Justice Innovation, a new book that I put together with Quid Pro Books.  I got to know Quid Pro last year when they re-released Malcolm Feeley's classic Court Reform on Trial and asked me to write a new foreword for the book.  I enjoyed the experience so much that I asked Quid Pro if they might be interested in doing a book that would bring together a number of essays I have written over the years, including selections on the Red Hook Community Justice Center, problem-solving justice, and failed criminal justice reforms.  Thankfully, they said yes.

The final result is a collection that makes the case for the importance of criminal justice innovation at the local level, as opposed to grand national schemes or statewide legislative initiatives.  In a way, I am also making the case for the Center for Court Innovation, which is devoted to trying new ideas and improving the on-the-ground practice of judges, attorneys, probation officers and other criminal justice officials incrementally, step by step, over the years.

Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration is available from most major e-book retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and others.  It is also available as a paperback from Amazon.