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."