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...