Sunday, May 21, 2017

Locking Up Our Own


I read James Forman Jr.'s new book, Locking Up Our Own, quickly.  It is the kind of book that I like.  Indeed, it is the kind of book that I have tried on several occasions to write.

Locking Up Our Own is mercifully short -- less than 250 pages.  No padding here.  It is well-written.  The authorial voice is modest and unassuming.  Despite the urgency of Forman's message, which is essentially to make the case for a more humane approach to criminal justice policy, his tone is even-handed.  It never feels like he is over-egging the batter.  Despite this, I read the last dozen or so pages with tears in my eyes, moved by the story of Forman's attempt to help one of his clients when he served as a public defender.

While he brings to life a handful of interesting cases from his practice, Forman's primary purpose is to tell the story of the last 40 years of criminal justice history in the United States.  He rigorously -- and, in my opinion, correctly -- focuses on local politics and policymaking.  Forman uses Washington, D.C. as the launching pad for his narrative.  D.C. is my hometown and I can attest that Forman captures the mood and dynamics of the city well.

In particular, Forman nails the impact of the crack epidemic, both on the streets and in the corridors of power, in the 1980s and 1990s.  Washington was a violent city in those years and, as Forman documents, the calls for more law enforcement and tougher penalties came from almost all quarters -- including the black community.

Forman treats the central players in this history with nuance and understanding.  As he details, their actions directly contributed to the growth of incarceration in the United States.  But Forman gives them their due.  He acknowledges that they were responding to an unprecedented calamity -- the public safety crisis in D.C. was real and demanded immediate action.

Forman doesn't offer up pantomime villains or grand unifying theories.  In the end, he concludes that mass incarceration is "the result of a series of small decisions, made over time, by a disparate group of actors.  If that is correct, mass incarceration will likely have to be undone in the same way."  That sounds right to me.




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Inside/Outside Strategy


Philanthropy New York hosted a briefing on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (aka the Lippman Commission) earlier today.  It was a fascinating event.  I have been spending a fair amount of my time on this issue of late.  Even so, I felt like I learned things from the session, which featured former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Glenn Martin of #CloseRikers, Ken Zimmerman of Open Society Foundations, Sarah Williams of Propel Capital, and Justin Lapatine of Global Strategy Group.

Ken Zimmerman made a persuasive argument (to me at least) that even funders without a declared interest in criminal justice should care about the topic.  He said that every social policy issue (poverty, immigration, housing, education, etc.) inevitably involves people who are engaged in the criminal justice system.

Sarah Williams made the case that to achieve significant cultural change, you need both an inside and an outside strategy.  Judge Lippman and Glenn Martin embodied the two sides of this coin.  Martin talked about the various techniques that #CloseRikers has employed to raise public and political consciousness about the idea of closing Rikers Island.  And Judge Lippman talked about how he marshaled various institutional players (including the Center for Court Innovation) to support the work of the Commission.

Speaking of Rikers, I wanted to share a few links:

An Urgent Checklist for Closing Rikers -- Daily News op-ed.

Goodbye Rikers -- Off Kilter podcast

Radicalized on Rikers -- Slant podcast from City & State

The End of Rikers? -- New Thinking podcast featuring Courtney Bryan

As even the most optimistic advocates will admit, there is still a lot of work to be done to make the dream of closing Rikers a reality.  Certainly the Philanthropy New York session highlighted that there is a need for deeper, long-term investments on a number of fronts -- advocacy, direct service, research, and others. But I left feeling encouraged that there is an interest in criminal justice among the foundation community that simply didn't exist when I started working in this field twenty plus years ago.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Sensible Plan


For the past year, I have had two principal jobs – running the Center for Court Innovation and helping to coordinate the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.  A few days ago, the second job came to a happy conclusion with the release of the Commission’s final report. 

The report is more than one hundred pages long, but I can summarize the principal conclusion: the jail complex on Rikers Island must be closed. 

In truth, the Commission is not the first organization to make this case.  Indeed, Glenn Martin, gabriel sayegh and the #CLOSERikers campaign have been making this argument for some time.  What made the Independent Commission unique is that it set out to demonstrate how this goal might be accomplished.  The resulting blueprint details how the jail population in New York City might be reduced to roughly 5,000 people through improved diversion, pretrial justice, case processing, and sentencing. 

It is going to take some time for policymakers to digest the Commission’s report and weigh all of the recommendations.  The good news is that they will be doing so in the context of Mayor de Blasio’s historic decision to endorse the goal of closing Rikers Island.  In making this announcement, the Mayor underlined the difficulty of the task ahead.  I don’t think anyone who has studied Rikers would disagree. We have miles (and years) to go.  But at least we are on the path.  And that is worth celebrating.

I said before that the thing that made the Commission unique was its mission to come up with what the New York Times called “a specific, sensible, defensible plan.”  But there were a few other things that made the Commission unique. 

First was its leadership.  The Commission was fortunate to have former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as its chair.  Judge Lippman’s work ethic, strategic wisdom, and good humor kept the group constantly moving forward.  New York City is lucky indeed that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito selected Judge Lippman for this assignment.

Second, the Commission brought 27 leaders from a variety of fields to the table.  They included people with experience in law enforcement and people with experience behind bars…business leaders and community activists…defense attorneys and prosecutors…you name it.  Remarkably, everyone was willing to put their egos aside, roll up their sleeves, and devote hundreds of hours to the challenge of Rikers Island. 

Third, the Commission relied on the expertise of several private and non-profit partners.  In addition to the Center for Court Innovation, these included CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, Latham & Watkins LLP, Vera Institute of Justice, Forest City Ratner, HR&A Advisors, and Global Strategy Group.  I know for a fact that all of these groups devoted considerable pro bono time to staffing the Commission.  

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that dozens of people at the Center for Court Innovation contributed their time and ideas to this project – analyzing data, suggesting language, brainstorming solutions to obstacles along the way, etc.  There are too many to name them all, but I have to cite three: Nora McDonnell, Mike Rempel, and Courtney Bryan.  Nora served as our organizational backbone.  Mike was the man with the vision and the command of the data and the seemingly endless capacity for hard work. 

And Courtney…well, Courtney was everything.  She was, like Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred the drink.  Many, many people deserve credit for the Lippman Commission – it was a complicated undertaking that required the active collaboration of literally dozens of people (and no small dose of good luck). But I can tell you without fear of contradiction that Courtney Bryan was absolutely essential.  A unanimous, “thoroughly researched and compelling presented” report simply doesn’t get done without her smarts, her hustle, and her charm.  Period.


Apologies for the long, congratulatory message, but certain things must be said.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Trial & Error in China


As anyone who has spent time with me can no doubt attest, I have been the beneficiary of a lot of good luck in my professional life.  Many of the good things that have happened to me have been the product of being in the right place at the right time as opposed to careful, deliberate planning toward a pre-determined goal.

The latest example of this is the release of a Chinese edition of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning Failure by Peking University Press.

A couple of years ago, He Ting, a Chinese scholar, approached me to ask whether I was willing to let him translate the book.  He did almost all of the work.  My role was to serve as a go-between with the publisher to help secure the rights.  I also contributed a short new afterword.

The book was released a few weeks ago.  My copies arrived in the mail earlier this week.  It is a beautiful edition -- kudos to He Ting and the folks at Peking University Press.  Alas, I lack the language skills to be able to read the brook  But for fun I did go to Google to translate some of the reviews from Amazon.  Here is a small sample:

"Author writing humorous, so that this book has a strong readability and popularity."

"Through the US criminal justice reform, we can find a lot of inspiration, some things can not just rely on our simple judgments to get the results."

"Content is easy to understand, to practical cases to promote academic thinking, by the influence of the story of the vivid description of the can be described as the music in the music."

"American legal system has been for other countries to refer to and study, the United States of justice came today, the original has also experienced such a twists and turns."

Rowman & Littlefield came out with a revised English language version of Trial & Error last year, with a brand new introduction from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. and a new postscript from both Aubrey Fox and me.  


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Aubrey Fox


Today brings news that the Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) has selected Aubrey Fox to be their new executive director.  CJA has a long, rich tradition of reducing the unnecessary use of pretrial detention in New York City. I have written in the past about the special debt that I feel to the agency so I won't rehash that here. What I'm not sure I've written about before is the debt that I feel to Aubrey.

Aubrey worked at the Center for Court Innovation for many years and in many capacities.  Among other things, he helped to plan and launch Bronx Community Solutions and the Centre for Justice Innovation, our UK-based sister agency. As with all of the best people that I have worked with over the years, it is difficult to distill Aubrey's impact down to items on a resume.  In particular, his intellectual curiosity, his sense of adventure, and his capacity for mirth had a big influence on the trajectory of the Center. Certainly they had a big influence on me.

I can't count the number of essays, op-eds, grant proposals, reports and other written products that I have co-authored with Aubrey.  This includes working together on Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure, a book about how difficult it is to make change happen in the real world.  Collaboration can be hard work -- it is not easy to produce joint written product.  But working with Aubrey was a day at the beach -- he always brought humor and insight and flexibility and compassion.

I have no doubt that he will bring these same qualities to leading CJA.  I wish him nothing but success.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Aiming for Improvement


I spent the end of 2016 catching up on my reading.  Among other things, I was able to finish Dale Russakoff's The Prize, which I recommend highly.  It is essentially a more thoroughly-reported, education-focused version of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform.  Russakoff tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to reform Newark schools.  Despite the money (which was matched by other philanthropists) and the spirited advocacy of Governor Christie and Mayor Cory Booker, the effort ended up being a slow-motion train wreck.  

Much of what is described in The Prize is unique to Newark.   But there are also lots of lessons that are applicable to other settings.  The mistakes made in Newark include a failure to engage meaningfully with local communities, a focus on publicity at the expense of implementation, and a propensity to overstate results.  The Prize is essentially an endorsement of working behind the scenes, engaging in rigorous research, having humility, listening to people on the ground, and celebrating incremental progress -- in other words, the Center for Court Innovation's approach to reform. 

The Prize isn't an uplifting book by any means, but it provided me with a measure of inspiration as we head into the new year.  I have no doubt that 2017 will bring many challenges.  But I also have enormous confidence in the Center for Court Innovation's model -- and the quality of the people I work alongside.  

We are currently putting the finishing touches on our most successful year-end individual fundraising appeal ever.  In one of the appeals that we sent to potential donors, I quoted a recent article from The New Yorker by Akash Kapur that struck a chord with me.  He writes,

"What if the real way forward weren't a great leap but grinding, tedious, unglamorously incremental change -- what George Eliot called 'meliorism'? ...Aiming not at perfection but at improvement, accepting the vagaries of human nature as a premise that policy must accommodate, rather than wish away, meliorism forces a longer, more calibrated approach.  It is not a path for the impatient, but it has the verdict of history on its side." 

The kind of work the Center for Court Innovation does -- strengthening the fabric of neighborhoods, changing the behavior of justice agencies, investing in the futures of young people, etc -- doesn't lend itself to quick fixes or easy solutions.  But that's why we designed the Center for Court Innovation to be an ongoing engine for change that is not tied to any particular administration or piece of legislation or single issue.  

Reform within any public bureaucracy is difficult.  It is doubly so within the American criminal justice system, which is comprised of multiple agencies in multiple places, each with its own unique mission and culture.  As the old cliche goes, criminal justice reform is a marathon not a sprint.  And the Center for Court Innovation is built for a long race.