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.