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.