Saturday, April 16, 2016

Art and Science

This past week was a busy one for the Center for Court Innovation:  

We hosted a gathering of state drug court coordinators at our headquarters in Manhattan. 

The MacArthur Foundation announced the 20 winners of its Safety and Justice Challenge.  Alongside a handful of other organizations, we are providing technical assistance to the winning jurisdictions as they move to implement plans to reduce their local jail populations.

Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman convened the first meeting of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration.  We are helping to support the Commission by providing research and strategic advice. At the first meeting, our research team offered the Commission members an overview of the history of Rikers Island. 

The US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance announced that 10 cities had received funds to launch or enhance community courts.  We helped BJA to implement this grant solicitation as part of our ongoing effort to spread the idea of community justice. 

Speaking of community justice, perhaps the biggest event of the last week was Community Justice 2016, the international summit that we convened in Chicago.  More than 400 criminal justice reformers representing more than 100 jurisdictions attended the conference.  It was the fourth such summit that we have put together, each one a little bigger than the one before.  

As part of my welcoming remarks, I talked a little bit about what originally attracted me to this field  more than two decades ago: 

In the early 1990s, I moved to New York City to help plan a community court in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

I made this choice then  and I have continued to make this choice ever since – because I believe that reforming the justice system is both an art and a science. 

Make no mistake: to do this right, we need to be nerds.  We need to be clear thinkers who look at the data and consult the latest social science, particularly when it comes to risk and needs assessment.

But we also need to be guided by compassion and remember that the justice system isn’t an abstract process or a series of numbers on a page – it is a collection of people.  And no matter what role they have been assigned in this drama – be they police officers or perpetrators, concerned citizens or community corrections officers  all of these actors are driven by the same motivations and idiosyncracies that always drive human behavior. We can never hope to improve justice unless we wrestle with this messy reality.

I think Community Justice 2016 honored both sides of the art/science divide.  Several sessions were devoted to encouraging jurisdictions to adopt programs and practices with a solid research foundation. And we also spent a fair amount of time talking about how justice agencies can engage the public effectively, with a particular focus on the challenges of communicating effectively with communities of color with low levels of trust in government.  I left Chicago feeling hopeful about the possibilities of advancing a brand of criminal justice reform that is both thoughtful and humane.  At least, that's what we are committed to trying to do at the Center for Court Innovation. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Humor, Dignity and Thoughtfulness

Funeral services for my sister-in-law, Anne Louise Bayly Berman, were held this past Sunday at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington DC.  Here is what I said in my eulogy:

When I first met Annie Lou, I was mildly suspicious of her.

This was due primarily to my natural protective instincts on behalf of my kid brother MJ.  Like many older siblings, I want the best for my brother. Translated, this means that I tended to view his romantic partners through a particularly critical lens.

But I must confess that part of my skepticism was related to Annie Lou’s personality.  I think it is fair to say that I had never met anyone as relentlessly positive and upbeat as Annie Lou.  Anything my kids did, no matter how annoying, she greeted with enthusiasm.  Any idea I floated was a decent one.  She was game for just about any plan.

When it quickly became apparent that MJ was serious about Annie Lou, I took my parents aside and expressed my concern: “When do you think we will meet the real Annie Lou?” I asked.  “No one could possibly be this nice all the time.”

As I got to know her better, I realized that I had indeed met the real Annie Lou.  At her core, she was a person who, unlike me, constantly sought to identify the best in people.  She really was that nice. 

Now, sometimes, we use the word “nice” as the faintest of praise, to denote someone who is mild and inoffensive.  But Annie Lou was anything but milquetoast.  In appearance, Annie Lou might have blended in seamlessly with the other young moms of Northwest DC.  But beneath that exterior was someone with a unique sense of style and broad interests, including culture both high and low.

Annie Lou was, in a word, cool.

But beyond her coolness and her affability, what I respected most about my sister-in-law was her integrity.  Her sense of decency extended both near and far.  She was a generous and warm protector of her family and others in her immediate orbit.  She was also interested in promoting the greater good, be it the Horace Mann school community or Baby Love DC or her hometown of Washington, which she loved so dearly. 

Over the years, my mom, the great Michele Berman, has talked about how Annie Lou changed the Berman family.  Now, I wasn’t aware that anything in particular needed changing – I thought we were doing pretty good before Annie Lou came along. 

But my mom, as always (or nearly always), was correct: Annie Lou was a binding agent.  She not only created special individual connections with each of us, she also actively sought to strengthen our connections with each other. She was, to paraphrase Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink, the dynamic force that brought disparate elements together.  

The word I have heard used most often over the past few days with regard to Annie Lou’s passing is “unfair.”  And when we are confronted with events that don’t square with our sense of justice, we often turn to religion to help us make sense of them. 

Unfortunately, I am not a religious man.  What little spirituality I have is an ad-hoc mixture of Judaism, Quaker ideas I picked up in high school, and mumbo jumbo lifted from cheesy science-fiction films like Star Wars. 

But here are three things I believe.

I believe that in her own small way, Annie Lou was a light unto the nations, a moral exemplar for those of us who had the good fortune to see her kindness in action.

I believe that all of us gathered here today will carry a little spark of Annie Lou forward with us, whether it be her generosity of spirit, her relentless search for beauty, or her strength in the face of adversity.

Finally, I believe that the force is particularly strong with these ones.  Charlie, Teddy, Scottie and Nell – I envy you.  I envy you because of all the people in the entire world, you have the most Annie Lou inside of you.  In the days to come, I know that you will tap into this secret super power to become the best people you can be.

One of things that I have always loved about my father is his clear thinking about what success in life looks like.  Although he was and is a successful businessman, he never sent the message to MJ or me that we should measure ourselves by the money we made.  This is a trait that Annie Lou shared.  In the mission statement that she created for her family, she made this abundantly clear.  “With humor and dignity and thoughtfulness you can have a great life,” she wrote.  Humor, dignity and thoughtfulness.  Annie Lou’s time with us was too short, but by embodying the values of humor, dignity and thoughtfulness, she showed us what it means to lead a great life.