Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lippman's Legacy


Tomorrow's New York Times includes a feature by Jim McKinley entitled "New York's Chief Judge Leaving a Legacy of Reforms Inspired by Social Justice." The piece (which includes a bit about Legal Hand, our new network of community-based legal information centers) is a fitting tribute to Jonathan Lippman as he retires from the bench.

I have been fortunate to work with Judge Lippman for quite some time, dating back to his days as chief administrative judge under Judith S. Kaye.  We discussed some of our joint history in a public conversation at the Center for Court Innovation earlier this year -- check out Moving the Mountains for excerpts.

I will leave it to others to summarize Lippman's legacy (in addition to the Times piece, the New York Law Journal is also running a major retrospective.)  Like others who have worked with Lippman, I can attest to his prodigious work ethic, his commitment to justice reform, and his fundamental decency.  I particularly admire his ability to see the big picture and master operational details -- two qualities that rarely go together in my experience. The photo above (which also features New York City councilman Rory Lancman) captures another one of Lippman's signatures -- his gift for interpersonal communication.

But beyond testifying to his talents as a reformer and administrator, what I mostly want to express in this space is my gratitude.  Over the years, Lippman has been an important supporter of the Center for Court Innovation.  He has turned to us to help implement some of his signature programs, including adolescent diversion and human trafficking initiatives.  And his endorsement has been crucial to helping us advance some of our most important ideas, including our efforts to reform the bail system and create a community justice center in Brownsville.

I would say that the field of justice reform is going to miss Judge Lippman, but I expect that he will be just as vocal in the years to come as a private citizen as he has been as a jurist.





Thursday, December 17, 2015

Long Time No Blog


Apologies for my silence of late -- the end of the year has been a busy time for me both at work and at home, including a fair amount of travel and a bat mitzvah celebration for my youngest daughter.  A few quick hits before 2015 comes to a close:

This is the season of giving, so I thought I'd highlight a few of the criminal justice organizations that I have chosen to support this year.  These include the Vera Institute of Justice (which just released a nifty tool for tracking the growth in jail populations across the United States), the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education (my alma mater's effort to provide a liberal arts education to inmates in Connecticut prisons), LIFT (an agency co-founded by my friend Liberty Aldrich that provides information to litigants in NYC Family Court), the New Press (which has publishes a range of interesting books on criminal justice, among other topics), and, of course, the Center for Court Innovation (the agency that has been my home for the past two decades). 

Here's wishing you a happy and healthy new year. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Answer Is Love


Earlier this week, there was a shooting down the street from our headquarters on 8th Avenue.  The details are murky, but press reports suggest that the incident, which left one dead and two injured, was drug-related and that everyone involved had a history of addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system.

I have been thinking about this shooting a lot – and not just because I walk past the site of the violence every morning on my way to work.  

A few days ago, I took a couple of foundation executives to tour the Midtown Community Court.  It was a great visit, highlighted by a conversation with a client in Midtown’s fatherhood program who had originally come to the Court as a defendant.  In the course of detailing his efforts to achieve sobriety, Daniel said that if it wasn’t for the Midtown Community Court, he would be dead.

At the risk of appearing insensitive, I usually dismiss this kind of language.  It is not uncommon for clients to make over-the-top rhetorical gestures.  But this time, it stopped me cold.  It may have been because of the earnest way the line was delivered.  Or maybe it was Daniel’s facial scarring, which spoke of a life lived on the edge.

In any case, it was a powerful reminder of the importance of the work that is being done on the ground every day by our case managers, outreach workers, violence interrupters, social workers and youth workers in places like Red Hook, Brownsville, Harlem, Crown Heights, Newark, and the South Bronx.  They are literally in the business of saving lives.

How do they do it?  According to Daniel, the client at Midtown, the answer is love.  He talked about his relationship with his case manager, and the care she had shown him, even when he relapsed or failed to show up for court appearances. 

Daniel also talked about the importance of small gestures.  In his case, the purchase of a meal at McDonalds when he was at a low moment was a sign of the program’s love and respect – a love and respect that he has attempted to reciprocate by meeting his obligations to the court.  The drug treatment and the job training and the judicial monitoring were important to Daniel, but they might have gone for nought if they were not accompanied by the feeling that his case manager truly cared for him.

Daniel’s story isn’t over yet, of course.  Staying clean will be a lifetime struggle.  And he still needs to find long-term employment.  But Daniel has reconnected with his daughter and is attempting to be a good father. 


As depressing at it is to contemplate the life trajectories of the men involved in the Midtown shooting earlier this week, Daniel’s example gives me hope that – with the right combination of programming and accountability and, yes, love -- these trajectories can be altered.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Celebrating Red Hook


This past Monday, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Red Hook Community Justice Center with a benefit at the Brooklyn Museum.  More than 200 people showed up to see us honor New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Cravath Swaine & Moore partner Stuart Gold, and former client Pauline Nevins.  Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson gave a particularly good speech, highlighting Red Hook's importance as an international model of fairness and making a strong case for a community justice center in Brownsville.  (For a full report on the event, click here.)

As much as I enjoyed the various speakers, my favorite part of the evening was seeing so many friends and former colleagues come out to support the Center.  The party had a little bit of a reunion vibe.  Given this, I thought I'd share a few of my favorite photos, courtesy of our ace photographer, Gene Sorkin.


This is a shot of me with Ife Charles (who works on gun violence prevention programs at the Center for Court Innovation) and Errol Louis of NY1 who served as the MC for the event.


Here is Red Hook's presiding judge, Alex Calabrese, with Pauline Nevins.


Toni Bullock-Stallings recently retired after serving as chief clerk in Red Hook for many years, but she came back to celebrate with us.  That's her on the right.  On the left is Sabrina Carter, a Red Hook resident who first entered our orbit when she served as a member of the Red Hook youth court.  She is now the coordinator of youth programs at the Justice Center.


City council member Rory Lancman (on the left) has been a vocal advocate of justice reform in New York City.  We have been talking with him about studying the feasibility of a community justice center in Queens.  On the right is Wally Bazemore, a community activist from Red Hook.  I met Wally back in the bad old days when Red Hook was overrun by drugs.  He was involved in a group called the Mad Dads of Red Hook.  He has been an important supporter of the Justice Center, including volunteering for Red Hook's peacemaking program.


Pauline Nevins was the evening's final speaker.  She talked movingly about her struggle with addiction and the role that the Justice Center (and Judge Calabrese in particular) has played in helping her get her life back on track. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Not Just Another Docket Number


The past twelve months or so have been a time of great ferment here at the Center for Court Innovation.  We have launched a number of significant new programs, including Poverty Justice Solutions.  Alongside the MacArthur Foundation and an array of other partners, we have embarked on a national effort to reduce the use of local jail.  And we have made an institutional commitment to help promote bail reform in New York.

One of the most exciting new developments at the Center is actually one of the simplest (at least conceptually).  The Center got its start creating alternatives to incarceration at the sentencing phase of the criminal justice process.  We worked with justice agencies to create meaningful alternatives so that judges wouldn't have to default to jail or prison as a response to misdemeanor crime or addicted offenders or mentally-ill felons.

In recent months, we have attempted to bring similar kinds of programming (community restitution projects, links to social services) to key junctures earlier in the criminal justice process.  One particular area of emphasis is pre-court diversion.  Our goal here is to provide legally-proportionate responses to minor offending so that teens can avoid formal case processing and all of the attendant collateral consequences that go along with it (including the potential to receive a criminal record).

With the help of the New York Police Department and the District Attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we have launched an initiative known as Project Reset.  With initial pilots in Brownsville and Harlem, Project Reset provides 16- and 17-year-olds who have been apprehended for offenses like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession with a path out of the justice system.  If they successfully complete a short, two-session intervention, participants never have to go to court.  As a result, they walk away with no criminal record -- and no chance of landing in jail.

Project Reset is still in its infancy, but we have already seen enough to suggest that it is worth looking to expand the program beyond its pilot sites.

One of the crucial building blocks for Project Reset has been the youth courts that we operate in Harlem and Brownsville. These projects are training local teens to offer a restorative response to low-level offenses committed by their peers.  Fusion TV  recently documented the experience of Faith, a Brownsville teenager who went through the youth court.  There was much to like about the piece, but my favorite line was when Faith said: "It feels good that I got a second chance and to have actually learned from it."  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Expressing With My Full Capabilities


I spent the Labor Day holiday immersed in hip-hop and history, going to see Hamilton on Broadway and Straight Outta Compton at the cineplex.

In many ways, the most remarkable thing about these two cultural products is the simple fact that they exist.  It is fair to say that neither a hip-hop musical nor a feature-length bio-pic about a rap group that recorded only a single good album would have been conceivable when I was first introduced to hip hop at a basketball camp in Washington DC back in the summer of 1984.

I had heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash some time earlier.  As good as that song was (and is), I dismissed it as a one-off, a gimmick.  Then, on the bus ride to camp one day, I heard "It's Like That" by Run-DMC.  It was, as Large Professor would say, "rebel music," and as such, it resonated with my teenage anti-authority impulses.

With the benefit of hindsight, the 1980s was not the best of times to be a teenager -- AIDS, crack cocaine, an explosion of gun violence, disinvestment in cities, etc.  But I will always be grateful that I got to experience the "golden age of hip-hip" as it unfolded.  It seemed like every month, a different artist was releasing ground-breaking work -- the Jungle Brothers, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and many others.

I have written a fair amount about my love of hip-hop.  I don't want to over-sell it, but there is no doubt that hip-hop has had an influence on my professional life.  Thanks to hip-hop (and an unsolicited editorial I wrote about Eazy-E), I got a chance to freelance at the Providence Journal in my early 20s.  And while there is no obvious connection between hip-hop and the Center for Court Innovation, I like to think that I bring some of the creativity, humor, and DIY spirit of the music to my daily work.

These qualities are manifest in abundance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which really is as good as everyone says it is.  In an odd way, I found the musical about our founding fathers closer in spirit to what drew me to hip-hop than the film about N.W.A.  The Straight Outta Compton movie makes a half-hearted effort to claim that N.W.A were "journalists" reporting on the reality of life on the streets of Los Angeles.  For a time, it was possible to listen to Public Enemy and imagine that you were tuned into "CNN for black people," as Chuck D famously said.  But not N.W.A.  Once you got past a handful of powerful anti-police songs, N.W.A. spent most of their time engaging in macho posturing and adolescent sex fantasies.  And that comes across in the film, which, like the music it depicts, often feels cynical and mercenary.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Fighting Poverty, Closing the Justice Gap


Tonight marked the official launch of Poverty Justice Solutions, our new initiative that seeks to achieve multiple goals simultaneously: preventing eviction (and the resulting economic hardship), improving access to justice in New York City Housing Court, strengthening local legal service providers, and encouraging an ethic of service among law school graduates...plus a few others that I'm probably forgetting.

The project is the product of a partnership between the Center for Court Innovation, New York State Court System, Robin Hood Foundation, New York City Human Resources Administration, Mayer Brown LLP, and numerous legal service providers.  Twenty newly-minted attorneys will receive a two-year fellowship to represent indigent clients in Housing Court.  (Many are graduates of the pro bono scholars program initiated by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.)  Along the way, we will provide them with special educational opportunities above and beyond the training they receive from their host organizations.  Our hope is that this group will develop not just into first-rate attorneys, but the next generation of leaders who will advance the field of civil justice.


In his remarks at tonight's gathering, Judge Lippman placed Poverty Justice Solutions in the context of the battle to close the "justice gap" -- the staggering numbers of poor New Yorkers who must go to court to address fundamental issues related to their housing, or their families, or their jobs, without the benefit of legal representation.  Twenty new lawyers won't fix this problem by themselves, of course, but we hope that when combined with increased funding for legal services from the city and the state and other innovative programs like the Immigrant Justice Corps, we can make a significant dent.

Here's a link to a piece in the New York Law Journal about Poverty Justice Solutions.

Friday, August 7, 2015

In Praise of My Father-In-Law


I write in praise of Jim Vellenga, my father-in-law.

I entered into a long-term relationship with Jim more than two decades ago when I decided to marry his daughter.

As far as I know, there is no real guide to forging a good relationship with your father-in-law. Despite the presence of the word “father,” your relationship with the man who raised you isn’t really analogous. The dynamic with a father-in-law is simpler and less fraught – there is no need to distinguish yourself from your father-in-law.  Nor do you feel implicated, at least not directly, by the behavior of your father-in-law.

Nonetheless, it can still be a tricky relationship to navigate.  As I started to get to know Jim, I thought a lot about my relationships with other male authority figures – coaches, teachers, bosses.  I began to sketch what I thought were the essential ingredients of a good father-in-law.  I came up with three:

1. Acceptance – First and foremost, it is important to be welcomed into the family with enthusiasm.
2. Difference – I was looking for a different perspective from my family of origin...but not too different. That is, I was hoping my father-in-law would broaden my thinking about the world but that his underlying values would be compatible with those of my parents.
3. Reliability – Finally, I wanted a reliable narrator, someone who could be trusted to look after my children, to offer meaningful advice, and to step up in times of crisis.

From day one, Jim has exceeded my fondest hopes in all of these areas and more besides.

What, you may be asking, are the essential elements of being a good son-in-law?  What was Jim looking for from me?  I have given less thought to this question.  Perhaps this is because I know the answer might not be flattering.

Jim has a natural head for numbers and business.  I avoid math wherever possible and have spent my entire professional life in the non-profit sector.  Brought up in South Dakota, Jim is an outdoorsman who loves to hunt and hike.  I am a city boy who refused to participate in target practice at summer camp because I didn’t want to touch a rifle.  Trained as an engineer, Jim can fix anything.  I only have one move when something breaks in my house – to pay someone to repair it for me.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Suffice to say that if Jim chose to look at me through a critical lens, he could find no shortage of faults.  But instead of judging me with a critical eye, Jim has always embraced me with a warm, open heart.  And for that, I will always be grateful.  I can’t imagine a better father-in-law.

I write all of this now because Jim has fallen ill and, despite my fervent wishes to the contrary, there is very little I can do to help him.  So I write this just to express my love and regard.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Design Like You Give A Damn


"Design Like You Give A Damn" is the name of a book that came out a few years ago that featured, among other innovative public projects, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  "Design Like You Give A Damn" would also have been a good title for the conversation I participated in earlier today with a group of architects interested in rethinking how the justice system approaches design.

The participants in the meeting were full of good ideas about how to improve jails, courthouses, probation offices and other criminal justice settings. The group seemed to agree that before you can have good design, you have to have good clients (i.e. government agencies who are interested in more than simply replicating yesterday's facilities with better systems) and good process (to arrive at a shared programmatic vision to guide design).

Everyone in the room also seemed to agree that "environment cues behavior" as one architect put it. The implications of this for the criminal justice system are to create spaces that encourage (voluntary) law-abiding behavior and nudge participants (be they inmates, arrestees, victims, etc) toward participation in positive activities.

While the architects didn't use the language of procedural justice, they essentially were encouraging criminal justice agencies to create facilities that communicate respect to users not just through program but through design and signage as well.  This idea has animated all of the design projects that we have engaged in at the Center for Court Innovation.

As it happens, I talked a little bit about the intersection of design and procedural justice at the National Network for Safe Communities conference a few weeks ago -- see video link below around the 16 minute mark.


For anyone interested in more detail about how we have tried to approach these topics -- typically with a major assist from the architect Alta Indelman -- check out this breakdown of the Red Hook Community Justice Center that was published by the Rudy Bruner Foundation

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Revolutionary Idea


She works in a building called "the green monster."   She's been called "a warrior of procedural justice." Now I think you just have to call her a star.

It has been a big couple of weeks for Judge Victoria Pratt of Newark Community Solutions.  A couple of weeks ago, she was profiled in a great long read in the Guardian under the headline: "The simple idea that could transform US criminal justice."  And this morning she appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC talking about how she has implemented procedural justice in Newark's Municipal Court.

In just a few minutes on screen, Judge Pratt explains how to treat even difficult defendants with dignity and respect.  She also talks about how she has used essay assignments to help defendants accept accountability for their behavior and think outside of the four corners of their block.

This is must-see TV for criminal justice reformers.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Love of Humanity


This week we said a reluctant farewell to Lucille Jackson, the project director of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, who is retiring after more than a decade of service.  Building on a foundation put in place by Carol Fisler, the project's lead planner and initial director, Lucille has helped the Brooklyn Mental Health Court achieve some remarkable results, including reducing re-offending by mentally-ill felony defendants.  (This recent article by Carol in the Judges Journal is worth a read for anyone who is interested in the latest research about the mental health court model.)

The Brooklyn Mental Health Court's impact on clients would not be possible without the active involvement of numerous people and agencies.  Lucille's farewell breakfast offered visible evidence of the collaborative spirit that she has been able to create and sustain within Kings County Supreme Court. Social workers, court officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and others talked about Lucille's capacity for hard work, her ability to adapt to difficult situations, and her willingness to mentor staff.

Perhaps most powerfully, Lucille was toasted by the presiding judge of the Mental Health Court, Matthew D'Emic.  (Judge D'Emic is being honored this summer by the American Bar Association at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.)  Judge D'Emic spoke eloquently about Lucille being motivated by a profound "love of humanity."

I think Judge D'Emic got it spot on.  Lucille is someone with a seemingly bottomless well of empathy, an empathy that she displays not just in her dealings with clients but with her colleagues and her partners.  She has made a significant contribution to our organization, to the criminal justice system, and to the borough of Brooklyn.  We will miss her.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"This Is Not Okay"


I'm spending today and tomorrow at the National Network for Safe Communities conference at John Jay College.  For those who don't know the National Network, they are the organization that is seeking to reduce crime and repair public trust in justice through a series of related interventions (e.g. the drug market intervention and the group violence intervention) that bring law enforcement and community voices together to combat violence.

I'm not a formal member of the Network, but I consider myself a bit of a fellow traveler.  Certainly, the Center for Court Innovation shares the broad goals of the Network to reduce the use of incarceration and repair the damaged relationship between the justice system and communities, particularly communities of color. (And, it should be noted, we have helped to convene call-in meetings in Brownsville that are an adaptation of the group violence intervention.)

I wish that everyone who is worried about the current state of criminal justice in this country could have been at this morning's session at the conference.  They would have seen dozens of police chiefs, prosecutors, community leaders and academics grappling earnestly with both the history of our country (particularly the legacy of racism) and the need for immediate and urgent action in crime-plagued communities. A few highlights from some of the featured speakers:

Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College, said that "the heavy footprint of mass incarceration...casts a shadow over our democracy."

Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, said that faith in justice has been fractured in many places but "nowhere is fractured faith beyond repair."  She went on to assert that "fairness and effectiveness in enforcement of the law are not mutually exclusive."

David Kennedy, the director of the National Network, made the case that there are too many communities in the U.S. with unconscionably high rates of violence, incarceration, and distrust of law enforcement.  "This is not okay," Kennedy asserted, underlining the moral imperative for change.  He went on to say that "small steps can make a huge difference" when it comes to addressing these issues.

William Bratton, the police commissioner here in New York, called the current moment, "the most serious crisis" he has seen in his career in law enforcement.  According to Bratton, "public safety without public approval isn't public safety."  He stated that there are alternatives to enforcement that can change the behavior of offenders and would-be offenders.  Among other examples, he highlighted Project Reset, the initiative that we are helping the NYPD (and local prosecutors) pilot in Brownsville and Harlem as a way of diverting 16 and 17 year olds who have committed minor offenses from formal court processing.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Snapshots of Brownsville


I take an enormous amount of pride in the Center for Court Innovation's reputation as a serious  research organization.  Under the leadership of our research director, Michael Rempel, our research department has grown steadily in size and stature, conducting dozens of studies of national and international import.  We also ask our research team to look at our own operating programs to figure out whether we are actually achieving the kind of results that we intend.

As important as I think it is to use data to examine the impact of our work, numbers inevitably fail to communicate much of what we do.  Take the Brownsville Community Justice Center, for example.

We are running a variety of different initiatives in Brownsville, all designed to reduce local crime, improve public trust in justice, and provide meaningful opportunities for young people to avoid criminal involvement.   This includes a campaign to combat violence in the neighborhood, a youth court that trains local teens to handle cases involving their peers, and a variety of efforts to transform the physical environment in Brownsville.

Even as I type this (partial) list of our activities, I know that I am failing to capture the feeling and texture of the work in Brownsville.  In the face of significant challenges, our team is helping to transform the lives of hundreds of people each year.  Everyone who I have ever sent out to Brownsville to see the work in action has come back a believer.

But it is hard to get people out to Brownsville.  So we have tried to tell the Brownsville story through podcasts, including this one with Loretta Lynch.  We have tried to tell the Brownsville story through a wonderful blog that is well worth following.  We  also have an Instagram account for Brownsville: @the_brownsville_justice_center.

Our latest effort is an investment in photography and design.  Spurred in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, we have created a beautiful poster (see photo above) that features portraits of a number of local residents and participants in our programs.  I can't wait for the final product to come back from the printers.

While we still have a lot of work to do to spread the word about the Brownsville Community Justice Center, the New York Times has gotten the message, running this piece earlier this week and this editorial endorsing the idea of a community court for the neighborhood.



Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Delayed Gratification


Last week, my beloved Arsenal football team won the FA Cup with a resounding 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.  The raw joy in the faces of the Arsenal supporters at the game reflected something more than the usual happiness at a favorable sporting outcome.  Part of this is contextual: despite being one of the most prominent clubs in the world, up until last year, Arsenal had somehow managed to go nearly a decade without winning a trophy of any significance.  The long wait clearly made the triumph just a little bit sweeter.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of patience of late.  I am currently working on a number of long-gestating projects, some of which are making steady progress and some of which seem to be going backwards.  Learning to delay gratification has been an important part of the maturing process for me as a professional.  When I first started working at the Center for Court Innovation, the longest I could imagine a project taking to get off the ground was about a year.  One of the most valuable of the many contributions that my old boss John Feinblatt made to my life was talking me down from the (metaphorical) ledge when I wanted to pull the plug on the planning of the Red Hook Community Justice Center back in the mid-1990s when we couldn't seem to attract any money or political attention to the project.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that John not only had faith in the merits of the project, but an appreciation that sometimes good things come to those who wait.  That certainly was the case in Red Hook, which thanks to a crucial push from both the New York City Mayor's Office and the New York State Court System, finally opened its doors for business in 2000.  In fact, we will be celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Justice Center later this year with a cocktail party at the Brooklyn Museum.  (See here for more information and to order tickets.)

One of the current projects that we are working on with a significant lead time is a new risk-need screening instrument for criminal courts.  With support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we are working to pilot the tool in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  The basic idea is to help judges, attorneys, and others make more informed decisions about the use of alternatives to detention and incarceration in high-volume criminal justice settings.  Our assessment instrument gives decision makers information about the risk levels of defendants -- how likely they are to re-offend.   It also provides information about the kinds of needs that individual defendants bring with them to the justice system -- addiction, housing problems, joblessness, etc.  Our hope in developing the tool is that justice agencies will use this information to both protect public safety and to increase the use of community-based alternatives to incarceration.

We did a presentation on the risk-need instrument the week before last to a small group of influential criminal justice players here in New York City.  At the meeting, researcher Sarah Picard-Fritsche took me by surprise when she said that she has been working on the project for four years.  It is no doubt a sign of my advancing years that four years no longer seems like such a very long time -- particularly since we are still probably a year away from the project bearing fruit.

For a little more detail on what we are up to with the criminal court assessment tool, check out this New Thinking podcast with Sarah Picard-Fritsche.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

601 Tully


I made a quick trip to Syracuse earlier this week for the opening of the Near Westside Peacemaking Project.

Building on the model of a similar program that we created in Red Hook, Brooklyn a couple of years ago, the Near Westside project seeks to resolve conflicts by adapting a Native American tradition to local problems.  Local volunteers are trained to serve as "peacemakers" by Native American practitioners.  The basic idea is to take a restorative justice approach to conflict, bringing together affected parties for multiple conversations that will hopefully yield a consensus about how to address the problem and move forward.  Peacemaking is a particularly good fit for messy problems involving multiple participants who must continue to interact on an ongoing basis.

Our hope is that the peacemaking project, which will handle referrals from the justice system, schools and neighborhood groups, will play a role in the continued revitalization of the Near Westside neighborhood, which has struggled with crime and poverty for many years.  The project is located in the heart of the community at 601 Tully Street, at an intersection that also features a school, a park and a church.

The peacemaking project has already successfully resolved one complicated dispute involving local school children and their families.  Another three conflicts are in the process of being addressed.  Also encouraging is the amount of good will the program has engendered in the community.  Dozens of local residents came out to celebrate the launch of the program, including many of the volunteer peacemakers.  Also on hand were the chief of police and representatives from the local housing authority, district attorney's office, and parole department.  It was a visible reminder of one of my favorite qualities of the Center for Court Innovation: when we are at our best, we are capable of serving as an interstitial link between government and the communities that government needs to do a better job of serving.

Speaking of links, it has been awhile since I unburdened myself of my opinions on a range of cultural topics.  Here are some quick takes:

The Engineer's Lament -- I think this is the best piece that Malcolm Gladwell has written for The New Yorker in some time.  I particularly liked his emphasis on the role our professional training plays in explaining our perspectives of the world.  (My lack of graduate education has certainly helped shape how I think.)

Montage of Heck -- While I didn't love HBO's overstuffed Kurt Cobain documentary, it did encourage me to play my Nirvana CDs for the first time in awhile.  I think I may be coming to the conclusion that Kurt Cobain was overrated but Nirvana was underrated, if that makes any sense.

The Memory Chalet -- I was initially tipped off to Nirvana in the early '90s by my friend John, whose tastes don't always overlap with mine, but whose recommendations I always take seriously.  As it happens, I am currently reading a book that John gave me: The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt.  The book collects some of the final writings by historian Tony Judt, who remained a productive writer till the end of his life despite contracting Lou Gehrig's disease.  It is the first book I've read by Judt, who I now add to the long list of authors who I wish I could write as well as.

Bill Simmons/ESPN Kerfuffle -- I'm a big believer in the importance of building small pleasures into one's daily routine.  The end of the Colbert Report was a big loss for me on this front -- I found the show's absurd humor helped sustain me.  This week has brought more bad news with the abrupt departure of Bill Simmons from Grantland and ESPN.  Simmons' columns and podcasts were something I looked forward to on a weekly basis.  If it is true, as rumored, that his departure was driven by ESPN's concerns about his criticisms of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, it is yet another reason for me to loathe the league.



Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I'm Still Free"


Another day, another great Center for Court Innovation event, this time in upper Manhattan as the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest cohort of graduates from its reentry court. More than 41 parolees were honored for having completed the nine month program.

I'm afraid I have written about these events on quite a few occasions so I apologize for the repetition, but this evening was another inspiring affair.  As always, I was struck by the mutual respect, gratitude and warmth between the graduates and their parole officers -- pretty much the opposite of what many people might expect the relationship between parolee and parole officer to look like.

The graduates were asked to say a few words as they accepted their certificates.  Part of the joy of these graduations is to see how each parolee reacts to this assignment.  Some are reticent.  Some make jokes.  Some speak directly to their fellow parolees.  Some speak to the rest of the audience.  And some are natural speechmakers who light up in front of the microphone.

Despite the diverse personalities of the individual parolees, their remarks tend to cluster around a few key themes -- their lives before prison, the challenges of reentry, the impact of the reentry court.  Here are a few sample quotations I jotted down from various speakers:

"I came home with nothing"

"I thought the world was against me."

"When I came here I was broken down.  I didn't want this program."

"I've been bumped and bruised."

"I've come a long ways.  I was in prison for 22 years.  The first week I came to the program I had a job...I still have a job."

"I want to thank my parole officer for treating me like a regular human being."

"Without my parole officers, I would have gone back."

"Thanks for not giving up on me."

"I'm still free."

Changing the DNA of the Courts


Earlier this week, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Bronx Community Solutions with a lunchtime event for about 200 people.  The featured speakers included Bronx District Attorney Rob Johnson (pictured), New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and New York City Council member Vanessa Gibson.

One of the things that any non-profit has to worry about is relevance.  This is particularly true of organizations that have experienced success in the past.  So I come to anniversary events with some trepidation.  In general, I don't think it is healthy for organizations to celebrate the past at the expense of current work or future plans.

But the Bronx Community Solutions event didn't trip this wire, at least for me.  I think the reason for this is that the problems that Bronx Community Solutions was created to address -- the over-reliance on incarceration as a response to minor offending and the disconnect between the justice system and local neighborhoods -- are more urgent and more relevant now than ever before.

All of the speakers highlighted that Bronx Community Solutions has succeeded in reducing the use of incarceration in the Bronx -- the number of misdemeanants going to Rikers Island has gone down by more than 40 percent since the project opened.  (This is something I wrote about a few months back for Talk Poverty.) Indeed, Chief Judge Lippman pointed to Bronx Community Solutions as a core component of a larger, systemic investment in alternatives to incarceration.  "We have come to understand that jail is a tool, not the tool...Step by step, we are changing the DNA of the courts," said Lippman.

As encouraging as Lippman's words were, the highlight of the event was undoubtedly the remarks by Ramon Semorile, a Bronx Community Solutions staffer who talked about the challenges he faced returning to the community after prison and the role that Bronx Community Solutions had played in helping him move forward in a positive direction.

We still have a long ways to go before we can say that we have a justice system that is fair, effective, and humane. But events like the one in the Bronx give me hope that change is possible -- for individuals, for communities, and for government systems.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Promoting Community Well Being


One of the parts of my job that I like best is when I get a chance to interact with people whose work I have read and admired over the years.  As it happens, I have had two such opportunities in the past few days.

Last week, I spent some time at the headquarters of the Marshall Project, the new criminal justice journalism project being edited by Bill Keller (of New York Times fame). And today I had a chance to sit down with Bruce Western at Harvard.  Among other things, Bruce is responsible for helping to put together the recent National Academy of Sciences study The Growth of Incarceration in the United States which has focused a great deal of attention on the problem of mass incarceration.

It turns out that there is significant overlap between Bruce's research and the work of the Center for Court Innovation.  In particular, we are both interested in thinking about how justice agencies might take a more expansive view of their roles, encouraging them to play an active role in promoting community well being at the local level.  Needless to say, this is one of the core goals of community courts.  We also talked about the challenges facing parolees returning to communities after time in prison; Bruce is currently working on a study that includes deep, qualitative interviews with parolees in Boston.

As it happens, the good folks at the Marshall Project recently ran a piece that teased out some of the preliminary findings from the Boston reentry study (entitled Meet Our Prisoners) that is well worth reading, particularly since it echoes many of the lessons that we are learning in places like Harlem and Crown Heights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Make It Happen


It would appear that spring is arriving in fits and starts here in New York City -- every sunny, warmish day seems to be matched by a cold, grey one.  Happily, this past Friday was one of the former, so I was in an upbeat mood when I arrived at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center for a discussion about Make It Happen.

Make It Happen is typical of a certain breed of program at the Center for Court Innovation.  These initiatives, which include Peacemaking Programs, Parent Support Programs, Child Witness Support Program, Westchester Court Education Initiative and others, have limited resources (no more than 2-3 staff members) but ambitious goals.

In the case of Make It Happen, we are trying to address trauma in the lives of young men (16-24) who have experienced violence in their lives.  Funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime, Make It Happen achieves its goal in two ways -- by engaging young people in workshops over the course of 10 weeks and by attempting to enhance the work of traditional victim service providers to encourage them to focus on the unique needs of young black men who are also crime victims.  One example of the latter is the Paving the Way conference that Make It Happen is helping to organize this coming week.

Kenton Kirby, who heads up Make It Happen, speaks eloquently about the challenges of working with a population that has traditionally been difficult for service providers to reach.  Make It Happen is a voluntary program, which puts the onus on Kirby to attract and retain participants.  That he has managed to engage dozens of young people so far is testimony to both his talent and the fact that the program is addressing a real gap in services.

Make It Happen is, of course, a companion piece to the work we are doing in Crown Heights (and other parts of Brooklyn) to prevent gun violence.  I am hoping we can continue to grow this portfolio in the months to come.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

"It's A Crazy World"


This afternoon, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a panel on juvenile justice reform as part of the roll-out of Nell Bernstein's new book "Burning Down the House."  I took my family to the event for multiple reasons.  To be honest, part of my motivations were ulterior -- the panel gave me an excuse to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit currently at the museum.  But it is also true that I had multiple connections with the event.  For example, Bernstein's publisher (The New Press) also published my book "Good Courts."  And three of the panelists were drawn from organizations that the Center for Court Innovation has partnered with in the past (Vera Institute of Justice, the Brooklyn DA's Office, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation).

But the primary reason I went to the event was to support the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which was represented by Jasmine Bowie (a social worker) and Abdul Francis (a participant).   Together, Jasmine and Abdul helped to ground the conversation in the realities of life in central Brooklyn -- the pressures exerted by local gangs, the dire consequences of incarceration, the challenges of working with young people suffering from various forms of trauma.  "It's a crazy world," said Abdul at one point (or words to that effect).  More positively, Abdul also spoke about coming to the Justice Center as a mandated participant but then continuing on after his mandate, thanks in no small part to the efforts that Jasmine made to engage him in the various youth development programs offered by the Justice Center.  Clearly, for Abdul, connecting with the Justice Center has been a life-changing experience.

We have a lot of work to do before we realize the vision of a full-fledged, functioning courthouse in Brownsville.  But today was a nice reminder that we are doing a lot of good work on the ground even before the courthouse opens it doors.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Change Is Possible



I braved treacherous roads and frigid weather to make my way to Albany today for New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's final state of the judiciary address.  


Interestingly, Lippman made no reference to his departure from the bench at the end of this year. Instead, he articulated a broad and aggressive agenda designed to promote access to justice.  When I interviewed Lippman a few weeks ago, he spoke passionately of his desire to level the playing field in court, ensuring that all New Yorkers -- rich and poor -- have equal access to justice.  He hit this note hard in his speech today. 

Several Center for Court Innovation projects received mention in the speech.  First, Lippman pointed to the Brownsville Community Justice Center as part of a response to the current crisis in public confidence in justice:

"Healing the rift that exists between the justice system and many of our communities will not happen overnight...but change is possible, and we have seen it in community courts in Midtown Manhattan, Harlem, and Red Hook, Brooklyn...We must look for other places that would benefit from the community justice model.  One such place is Brownsville, Brooklyn...we are developing a community justice center for Brownsville that will provide off-ramps for local residents who come into contact with the justice system...I look forward to the justice system playing a lead role in bringing trust and optimism back to Brownsville."

Judge Lippman also announced the creation of a new program, Poverty Justice Solutions, that will take 20 newly-minted attorneys and place them in two-year fellowships with civil legal service providers in New York. According to Lippman, "These attorneys will work at different agencies but they will all be dedicated to the same goal: helping low-income New Yorkers preserve their housing and prevent homelessness."
  
I'm proud that the Center for Court Innovation will play a small role in this process.  We will administer Poverty Justice Solutions, which is being supported by funding from the New York State court system and the Robin Hood Foundation. 

Several other initiatives that the Center for Court Innovation has played a role in conceiving and/or implementing were featured in the address, including our efforts to improve the way that courts handle cases involving victims of human trafficking and the work that the New York courts have done to promote reforming the bail system and raising the age of criminal responsibility.

All in all, a good day in Albany, albeit quite different from what I expected.  I went expecting a wistful look backwards on Lippman's time in office.  What I got instead was a bold agenda for continued reform.  It would appear that Lippman is going to be extremely busy during his final year in office. 


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

At the Coalface


I'm in London at the moment, attending "Better Courts," a conference convened by the Centre for Justice Innovation and the new economics foundation.  It has been a well-organized and well-attended gathering -- several latecomers were actually denied entry in deference to Health and Safety regulations.

The principal takeaway for me so far (there is still another day to go) has been the sense that there is interesting, innovative work taking place on the ground (or "at the coalface" if you prefer) in the justice system in the UK.  This is one of the central arguments animating the Centre for Justice Innovation, which I chair.  At the Better Courts conference, we heard from magistrates in North London and Plymouth about their efforts to link low-level offenders to community-based social service providers.  We heard about family drug and alcohol courts that are attempting to fashion a new judicial approach to addiction. And we heard about efforts to rethink the court experience on behalf of victims and juveniles.  Phil Bowen of the Centre for Justice Innovation (pictured above) argued that the local magistracy could be a center of "practitioner-led innovation" in the UK.

The conference wasn't all seashells and balloons as the old basketball coach Al McGuire used to say.  The speakers acknowledged a number of significant obstacles to court reform in the UK, including funding limitations, a conservative legal culture, and the seeming disinterest of many national-level decision makers.  But in general, there was a spirit of hope and optimism and camaraderie among the speakers and the attendees.  It was heartening to be among so many government officials, academics and non-governmental organizations that are committed to the long, difficult work of changing the justice system.

It was also good to observe another significant milestone in the development of the Centre for Justice Innovation, from a subsidiary of the Center for Court Innovation to a full-fledged, locally-driven charity.  From my perspective, the Centre no longer feels dependent upon the reputation or expertise of the Center in New York -- it has its own credibility and its own agenda.  But the underlying values are consistent with what we are doing in the US.  While the delegates, vocabulary, and program models featured at the Better Courts conference are different from a gathering that we might convene in New York, if you take a step back, the approach is the same as the Center for Court Innovation's -- a cross-sector convening that encourages local innovation and that frames conversation in practical and non-ideological terms.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pro-active in the Pursuit of Justice


I had the pleasure of interviewing New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman at the Center for Court Innovation this morning in front of an audience of about 60 people.  We will release a video and an edited transcript down the road, so I don't want to say too much about the conversation here. But in general, it was a wide-ranging discussion where Judge Lippman offered his views on contentious issues (Mets v. Yankees), explained his judicial philosophy ("pro-active in the pursuit of justice"), defended the growth of split decisions during his term on the court of appeals ("the law is better served when there is sharp dissent among judges"), and praised Governor Cuomo for his recent efforts to raise the age of criminal responsibility.  Judge Lippman also touched on bail reform, civil legal services, alternatives to incarceration and a range of other topics.  Throughout it all, Judge Lippman was an enormously good sport, dealing with cheeky questions about his teenage years and his shopping habits with good humor and graciousness.

I will share more tidbits from the interview in the days to come.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What Every Young Man Should Know About a Gun


In recent years, Newark Community Solutions has expanded beyond its base inside Newark's municipal court to incorporate a community-based outpost in the West Ward.  I spent time in both locations today and came away feeling good about our operations and optimistic about the capacity for change even in dire circumstances.

The programmatic focus of our work in the West Ward is an anti-violence program entitled Newark United Against Violence that includes targeted outreach, case management, and links to job training for local young people at high-risk of being shot (or being a shooter).


Spending a few hours with the team today, I was dumbfounded by the challenges that our participants must overcome -- absent parents, homelessness, substance abuse, educational deficits, histories of trauma...the list is daunting.  But against the odds, there are plenty of success stories among the dozens of people that Newark United Against Violence has served.

Two programmatic achievements struck a particular chord with me.  Amazingly, our team has encouraged multiple participants to turn themselves in to answer outstanding warrants.  Although we cannot guarantee leniency by the court, the outreach workers in Newark have convinced participants that it is in their long-term best interests to take care of the warrants rather than have a cloud over their heads that will complicate their lives for years to come.

Also impressive was the relationship between the outreach team and local police.  Talking to two officers today, it was clear that they had established a real relationship of trust and mutual support with the outreach team (which includes several individuals with a history of criminal involvement).  It was also clear that the police officers had come to rely on the program to help them intervene with troubled populations and tricky street situations -- instead of defaulting to arrest as their sole recourse.


After my visit to the West Ward, I made a pilgrimage to the Weequahic section of Newark to visit the house where my mom grew up.  My grandparents lived in Newark for many years (my grandfather commuted to a jewelry store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn every day), back when the city had a thriving Jewish community.  They moved out by the time I was born, but my mother is a wonderful storyteller about her childhood, so I still feel an emotional connection to the place -- which is one reason why I was so happy when fate led the Center for Court Innovation to work in Newark.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"The System Is The Punishment"


This morning, Crain's New York hosted a breakfast featuring Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.  It was a surprisingly combative forum, featuring tough Q and A from two Crain's editors and an emotional interruption from a woman whose daughter was killed in a traffic incident. 

Although Vance's speech began with a focus on cyber crime, he quickly moved to a discussion of race, police, and the current unrest in New York.  He talked about his experience as a junior attorney in criminal court and his realization that the vast majority of defendants were men of color.  According to Vance, this early experience led him to commission a study by the Vera Institute of Justice examining racial disparities and prosecutorial discretion in Manhattan.

Moving to policing, Vance said that he believed that "broken windows is never going away" because "communities want quality-of-life enforcement."  He also said that policing in New York City should look different in 2015 than it did in 2000 -- "more focused and more targeted."

Vance acknowledged that there was a real need to "restore trust" in the justice system and to rethink the response to misdemeanor offenses in particular.  In all too many cases, "the system is the punishment," admitted Vance.

Turning to solutions, the district attorney highlighted the work THAT is office has done to create a pilot youth diversion program in Harlem that will help teens apprehended for minor offenses avoid formal criminal prosecution.

As it happens, this is a program that we have had a role in helping to develop, in concert with the Manhattan DA's Office, the New York Police Department, the defense bar, and others.  The idea is simple: in lieu of going to court, participants will be linked to youth court, individual counseling and other alternative programming that we will provide out of the Harlem Community Justice Center.  (We will do something similar in Brownsville, in partnership with Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.)

These pilots, which will get underway next month, are purposefully small, but if they are successful, they have the potential to grow significantly -- incorporating more serious cases, older participants, and different neighborhoods.   More to come as these experiments get going...