Thursday, April 26, 2018

More Than Just A Court

Earlier this week, I spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University.  It was a nice event, highlighted by a keynote address by former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who talked about the need to address the over-use of incarceration in this country.
When it was my turn to speak, I decided to tip my hat to the evening's host, former New York City Mayor Dinkins.  If you follow the dominoes, you could argue that I owe my career to Dinkins -- his decision to invest in the Midtown Community Court helped set the wheels in motion that ultimately led to the creation of the Center for Court Innovation.
This is a version of what I said at the Dinkins forum (definitely not verbatim):
I got my start in criminal justice in 1993.  Working for John Feinblatt, I played a small role in the planning of the Midtown Community Court.  Midtown was (and is) a neighborhood-based court that seeks to focus on misdemeanor crime in and around Times Square, offering alternatives to fines and short jail sentences.   It also seeks to treat individual defendants with dignity and respect, and to link them to the kinds of social services – drug treatment, counseling, job training – that might help them get their lives back on track.
In attempting to do all this, Midtown was tilting into a pretty strong head wind.  Remember, the context was 1993.  We were coming off a decade when they regularly made movies like Escape from New York, The Warriors, and Fort Apache the Bronx that offered a fairly bleak portrait of life in New York City. The crack epidemic was still very much in the forefront of people’s minds.  This was an era of tough-on-crime legislation.  Megan’s Law, Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out, mandatory minimums…the net effect of all this was to toughen penalties for criminal behavior and tilt the scales of justice in the direction of prosecutors.
Given this backdrop, it took a measure of political courage to greenlight a project like the Midtown Community Court which explicitly sought to provide help to criminal defendants and was vehemently opposed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The Mayor who made Midtown happen was David Dinkins.  
In an editorial entitled “More than just a court” endorsing the project, the New York Times had this to say about Midtown:
The court that Mayor David Dinkins announced this week could improve justice and the quality of life where minor crime has become routine. The Midtown Community Court will hear misdemeanor cases. Rather than impose fines or short jail terms as is now common, the new court would sentence many such offenders to useful tasks like cleaning graffiti, helping at soup kitchens or sorting trash at recycling centers.  At the same time it would link them to social services available at the courthouse. It is a sound investment that could greatly enhance justice in the perception of both criminals and victims.
When Midtown was first launched in 1993 it was viewed as a radical, out-of-the-box idea.  If you fast forward to today, you will see that the rest of the criminal justice system in New York City has come to look a lot like the Midtown Community Court.  
New York City is much safer than it used to be.  Less well documented is the reality that the use of jail has also declined significantly.  Like crime, incarceration is down, and not just by a little. The use of jail in New York peaked at more than 20,000 in the 1990s. Today, there are less than 8,500 people behind bars. (As I have written elsewhere, this success is not down to any individual politician or piece of legislation, but rather the product of incremental changes that took place over the course of a generation.)
New York City has the lowest incarceration rate of all large American cities.  And it accomplished this during a period when incarceration rates were rising across the country. Remarkably, it is now possible to imagine closing Rikers Island.  Indeed, this is the official policy of the City of New York thanks to Mayor Bill De Blasio.  To say that this would have been inconceivable in 1993 is an understatement. 
So that’s the good news.  The bad news is that even though NYC is an international model of criminal justice reform, we still have glaring problems in our criminal justice system.  
If you take a trip to criminal court, the racial disparities in our system will smack you in the face.  And if you visit Rikers Island, you will see that the system is not really designed to recognize the fundamental humanity of those within it (be they detainees or correction officers).  Rather, it feels like the criminal justice system is an accelerant of human misery – that it takes people struggling with addiction and joblessness and mental health issues and other individual problems and makes them worse. 
There are many challenges that we need to confront before we can be said to have a justice system that lives up to its highest ideals in terms of fairness and effectiveness. But the biggest challenge for me is time.
I don’t think that the kind of transformation that we need to see in the justice system is going to happen overnight.  It is going to take time to win the hearts and minds of those who operate the justice system.  Unfortunately, there are dozens of other worthy issues competing for our (limited) attention spans. If I could ask for just one thing for those of us who are in the business of criminal justice reform, it would be the gift of patience.  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

There's Only One Arsène Wenger

Yesterday brought the sad news that Arsène Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, has decided to step down after more than two decades at the helm of the club.  Wenger's career at Arsenal has unfolded like a classic three-act drama:

Act 1: Arsène Who? -- He arrives as an outsider. His appointment prompts the newspaper headline "Arsène Who?" as befuddled journalists try to make sense of Arsenal's decision to give a professorial foreigner the keys to one of England's biggest teams.  

Act 2: Arsène Knows -- Skepticism turns to wonder.  Wenger helps to transform both Arsenal and British football generally.  He actively recruits players from around the globe, making his squad an emblem of international cooperation.  He introduces new disciplines of training and diet.  Most important from my perspective, he commits to an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football that emphasizes passing and movement and offensive flair.  And he wins -- a lot.  Three league titles.  Multiple FA Cups. Regular appearances in the Champions League. "Arsène Knows" banners pop up at Arsenal games. 

Act 3: Wenger Out -- After presiding over the most successful period in the club's history, including the move to a new, state-of-the-art stadium in 2006, Wenger sees Arsenal take a step backwards.  After finishing either first or second in the Premier League for 8 straight years, Arsenal goes a decade finishing either 3rd or 4th. A significant segment of the Arsenal fan base turns on Wenger, arguing that the game has passed him by.  "Wenger Out" banners appear at gatherings all over the world. 

Roughly speaking, over the course of twenty-two years in charge of Arsenal, Wenger has gone from unknown commodity to pathbreaking innovator to over-the-hill traditionalist.  I suppose it is an arc that most of us are doomed to follow in our careers.  

I first started following Arsenal in 2002. My brother was living in London at the time; he became a fan and I followed suit.  Those first couple of years were absolutely brilliant, highlighted by an unbeaten season and the graceful play of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.  It has been painful to watch the team's trajectory since then.  This year has been particularly bad -- the team has lost to less-talented clubs and their play has lacked both passion and coherence.  

Even as the team has underperformed, there is still much to admire about Wenger.  He is a smart, dignified public presence.  He never throws his players under the bus when the team loses.  And he sticks to his principles -- he has continued to attempt to play attacking football even as fans and commentators have implored him to improve the defensive solidity of his team. 

I'm not sure what lessons about life or leadership to take from Wenger's story.  It is hard not to conclude that he stayed too long at the party -- he probably should have retired several years ago.  It is also hard not to conclude that his greatness and his weakness are inextricably bound together: the same self belief that enabled him to overcome the doubters during the early years of his tenure made him resistant to change at the end of his reign.  

Watching Wenger as the losses and empty seats and vituperation have mounted has been has been an unpleasant experience.  He deserves better.  Now that he has announced his departure, it looks like he will get it -- the appreciations are starting to pour in from players and pundits alike.  

The best tribute that I can offer to Wenger is that he added to the amount of beauty in this world.  At their best, his Arsenal teams were a joy to watch, full of invention and style and grace.  Unique among his coaching peers, Wenger aspired to artistry.  In an interview a couple of years back he described his work this way: “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”  I doubt sincerely that we will ever see another manager like him.  He will be missed. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

About Alice

Today marks the retirement of Alice Tapia, a long-time community activist from Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Every healthy, functioning neighborhood needs Alice Tapias -- people who are willing to stand up and raise their hand when problems emerge and volunteers are needed.

I first met Alice in the mid 1990s, when I was tasked with putting together an AmeriCorps program in Red Hook.  With the benefit of hindsight, I now recognize that I was in way over my head.  I had to hold together a complicated multi-agency partnership, hire staff, find office and training space (for free), develop ties to the community so that we could organize service projects, and recruit 50 full-time participants -- all under intense time pressure given the necessities of federal funding.  I can't even begin to catalogue all of the mistakes that I made.  Somehow, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps managed not just to get off the ground but to survive and to help plant seeds that would later flower into the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Any honest assessment of how this happened has to begin with an admission that it was largely due to dumb luck.  We caught a lot of good breaks along the way.  Perhaps the most important was that Alice agreed to be part of the initial class of Corps members.  Alice was a crucial piece in the puzzle because she was already a leader in the community, well known for her work on community gardens.  She gave our nascent program an immediate dose of credibility, signaling to everyone who knew her and looked up to her that they too should give us a chance.  In doing so, Alice was taking a risk, casting her lot with an untested group of staffers, all of whom were younger than her, and an as-yet unproven idea -- that a community justice program could help improve public safety and bolster local confidence in justice.

Over the years, Alice has played a number of different roles in Red Hook, becoming a staffer at the Justice Center, creating Women in Touch, serving on the tenant association, and showing up for countless community organizing efforts.  She also made a small cameo in Good Courts, the book that I co-wrote with John Feinblatt.  Below is an excerpt that describes a housing court case handled by Alex Calabrese, the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center:

This anecdote is typical Alice -- she does the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes good outcomes possible.  Over the years, she has positively touched the lives of hundreds of people, using her patience, good humor, and good sense to help friends and strangers alike.  I am lucky to have had a chance to work alongside her.