Monday, July 16, 2018

"Band-Aids or Brain Surgery"


This week has begun with sad news: Robert Keating has passed away. 

Keating (and he was always "Keating" to me) was, for the better part of four decades, one of the most influential criminal justice policymakers in New York City.  He held a number of important positions during those years, including serving as criminal justice coordinator for Mayor Ed Koch and the chief administrative judge for the New York City criminal courts.

It was in this capacity that Keating helped to midwife the Midtown Community Court.  The photo above captures him (on the right) with Midtown's founding director John Feinblatt back in the early 1990s. 

As this early New York Times piece highlights, Keating was a capable rhetorician.  He used the expression "band-aids or brain surgery" to describe the limited options (jail or nothing) available to judges in many criminal cases. His support was absolutely crucial in helping the Midtown Community Court overcome the opposition of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. 

I first met Keating in 1994 as part of the interview process for the job as lead planner of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  Wearing his trademark bow tie, he made a strong first impression. He was an operator.  He liked to gossip.  But most of all, he liked to get things done.

I got to see this quality up close on many joint projects over the years. Among other things, we worked together to create a judicial summit in the aftermath of 9-11 and the (alas) short-lived Journal of Court Innovation. He participated in numerous roundtables that we organized at the Center for Court Innovation, including a memorable one on failure in the criminal justice system. We served together on the board of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency. And we crossed paths frequently as part of his service on the board of the Fund for the City of New York. 

It always made me happy whenever Keating was involved in a project.  You always knew what you were getting from him: intelligence, leadership, and a sense of fun. You could throw Keating into complicated situations and he would somehow manage to make sense of them.  A good example of this was when we arranged for him to speak in London about community courts.  With very little preparation, he was able to make a convincing case to many of the leaders of the justice system in England. 

But perhaps my strongest memory of Keating is of a piece of paper.  In the early days of the Midtown Community Court, we produced a regular internal report about the work of the Court -- what types of cases were being processed by the court, the disposition rate, compliance with alternative sanctions, etc.  For years, it was known as the "Keating Report."  This to me symbolizes his commitment to his craft, his interest in the internal workings of the justice system, his personal sense of responsibility, and his relentless dedication to positive change. 

I will miss him.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

How to Change the Criminal Justice System


For reasons that are somewhat obscure to me, in recent days I have felt the need to defend criminal justice practitioners.  This is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, I am nobody's idea of a frontline practitioner -- I have never arrested, prosecuted, adjudicated, or rehabilitated anybody.  Second, the agency where I work is in many respects predicated on a critique of standard practice in the justice system -- if system actors were doing their jobs perfectly, there would be no need for an agency like the Center for Court Innovation.

That said, I have felt protective of judges, attorneys, and other frontline players in recent days.  One potential reason for this is that so much of the conversation about justice reform pretends like they don't exist or that their insights aren't of any value.  I wrote a whole book, with Aubrey Fox, a few years ago that looked at the many ways that practitioners can spell the difference between success and failure when it comes to criminal justice reform.  I still believe in this idea.  (See Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure.)

Another reason that I have wanted to defend criminal justice agencies is that very few people seem inclined to do so these days.  These agencies are currently under siege from both the left and the right.  I don't hold any illusions; I know our justice agencies are deeply flawed.  And I also think that they are important institutions that our society cannot function effectively without.  Undermining public confidence in them seems like a dangerous game. 

At the end of the day, the goal of most criminal justice reform efforts is to change the behavior of system players.  There are many ways to attempt to accomplish this goal.  Certainly we have seen that legislative efforts or policy changes or impact litigation can successfully constrain the options of system actors, limiting their ability to impose lengthy prison sentences or detain individuals during the pre-trial period, for example.  I think all of these are legitimate pathways to change.  I also think that true and lasting change requires some measure of buy-in from police officers, probation officers, correctional officers and others who actually administer the criminal justice system each day.  And I think that this buy-in is mostly likely to occur when they have been part of the change process.

In recent years, I have written a handful of pieces that attempt to make this case. I think I keep writing about this subject because I'm not sure that I have quite nailed it yet.  Here are a few examples:

Our Two Kinds of Justice, and How To Reconcile Them -- This piece, from Governing, attempts to wrestle with the reality that many people in the justice system are trying to do the right thing, but the system is not achieving just results.  


The Justice System Case for Radical Incrementalism -- This essay, written with Julian Adler, argues that New York City has been a case study of how small changes in practice can sometimes add up to systemic reform.  More on this subject can be found in our book, Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration

The Challenge of Cultural Change on Rikers Island -- I wrote this piece for the Gotham Gazette after stepping down from the NYC Board of Correction. It describes my experience visiting Rikers and meeting correctional officers that defied my preconceived notions.