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.