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.