Monday, May 6, 2019

The Future Will Be Different


The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. -- Peter Drucker

Today, the NYC Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and the Center for Court Innovation co-sponsored an event at New York Law School that focused on the future of criminal justice in New York City.

The basic premise of the forum was that the historic reductions in crime and incarceration of the past generation combined with a growing understanding of the harms that criminal justice system involvement can cause have helped to spark a new kind of conversation about crime in New York City.  In particular, many reformers are now looking for ways to promote public safety that do not rely on the traditional mechanisms (arrest-adjudication-incarceration-supervision) of the criminal justice system.

Over the course of three hours, leading thinkers from government, academia, and the non-profit sector grappled with the challenge of how to simultaneously shrink the footprint of the justice system while continuing to reduce neighborhood crime. Part of this involved a look backwards, attempting to explain both the successes of the past generation in New York City (the safest big city in the country, with an incarceration rate that is closer to Europe than it is to many American cities) and some of the failures (recurring racial disparities at basically every point in the criminal justice system).  For a snapshot of some of the data that was presented by Liz Glazer from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice today, click here.

The conversation at New York Law School toggled back and forth between visionary thinking (is it possible to imagine a future with no jails or prisons or probation or parole?) and concrete problems that we still need to solve in the here and now (can we reduce technical violations of parole?  what should we be doing to address the places that are still hot spots of crime?).  I found the combination of lofty ambition and real-life concerns to be invigorating.  A few random highlights from the notes that I scribbled during the event:

Eric Cumberbatch of the Mayor's Office to Prevent Gun Violence focused on the history of disinvestment and direct sabotage that has been inflicted on many black and brown communities, arguing that justice should be about healing.  He also made the case that "we can't police our way out of historic problems."

Justine Olderman of Bronx Defenders argued that agitation by outside reformers has been crucial to New York's ability to reduce both crime and incarceration rates.

Judge Edwina G. Mendelson broadened the lens of the conversation to include families, discussing recent changes in Family Court and significant reductions in the number of children in foster care in New York.

David Weisburd, a criminologist at George Mason University, argued that police are still necessary to the fight against crime. He also suggested that the police's response to crime might look very different in the years to come than it does today.  For Weisburd, the operative question seemed to be not whether there should be police or not, but rather what should police be doing?

Divine Pryor of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions echoed Weisburd's point, saying that it is imperative to more clearly define the role of police. He also said that there is a need to repair the relationship between police and communities and that an essential first step is for police to acknowledge, and ideally apologize for, the harms that have historically been inflicted on African-American communities.

Patrick Sharkey of New York University said that the evidence is clear: police help to reduce crime.  He also made a powerful argument for looking beyond law enforcement as the primary response to criminal behavior. In particular, he suggested that neighborhood residents be paid to play a pro-social role in public space.

Alex Blau, a behavioral economist at ideas42, suggested that we should be looking to replicate the Becoming a Man program that has successfully been tested in Chicago.

DeAnna Hoskins of JustLeadershipUSA argued that the media has "normalized violence" in certain communities. She also talked about the need not just to change police behavior but to encourage people to call on police less frequently.

Cy Vance Jr, the elected District Attorney in Manhattan, talked about the potential impacts of the bail reform legislation recently passed in Albany and, in particular, about the need for more funding for pretrial services.  He also tried to re-frame the conversation about supervision of justice-involved individuals, saying that if done right, supervision "isn't a negative" -- its about providing help to individuals.

Rosalie Genevro of the Architectural League of New York advanced the idea that developing more supportive housing was among the most important investments that New York City could make in the days ahead.

Vivian D. Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship said that she felt there one source of New York City's success in recent years was increased collaboration, particularly between government and communities.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Adapting to Change


The field of criminal justice has shifted in some dramatic ways over the past half decade or so.  In the 1990s and 2000s, the field seemed to me dominated by a perception that "tough-on-crime" policymaking was the preferred mode of both political actors and the general public. Against this backdrop, those who were interested in advancing the idea of rehabilitation had to be both modest and cautious. In those years, even when Democrats were ascendant in the White House or local state houses, reformers took great pains to highlight the cost-effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration. Many adopted the language of "evidence-based programs" as a means to depoliticize the conversation about crime, making a technocratic case for less punitive policymaking.

Even though I have been alive and (mostly) awake through these years, I'm not 100 percent certain why the field of criminal justice has changed so much as our current decade has progressed.  Certainly, Michele Alexander's book The New Jim Crow has had an enormous impact, as has Ta-Nehisi Coates' writings about mass incarceration. I think that the rise of social media, and the amplification it has given to ideas (for better and for worse) that were previously obscure or extreme,  has also played a role.  I'd also argue that the improvement in public safety in many American cities has been a significant underlying factor, reducing levels of fear among the chattering class in places like New York and Washington DC.

Whatever the reasons, there has been a rejiggering of the criminal justice narrative, at least in intellectual circles. Many politicians, advocates, and academics now view criminal justice primarily through a civil rights lens. This lens has sharpened our focus on racial disparities within the justice system and on the manifold harms that can accompany conviction and incarceration, not just for the individual defendant but for his family and community as well. It has pricked the moral conscience of many Americans and generated an outpouring of both compassion and outrage. All of a sudden, ideas that would have been non-starters less than a decade ago -- closing Rikers Island! raising the age of criminal responsibility! eliminating cash bail! decriminalizing marijuana! etc etc -- are not only plausible but popular across a fairly broad political spectrum. An array of new funders and new organizations have emerged to advance these and other ambitious goals.

How long this will last is anyone's guess. The tectonic plates of public opinion and government policymaking tend to shift slowly.  For example, we continued to pursue high rates of incarceration well after the crime spikes of the 1970s and 1980s faded.  So, if history is any guide, we may be in our current mode for quite some time -- I think only a sustained uptick in crime, and the resulting public and political backlash, would be capable of altering the trajectory of the moment.

All of this is mostly good news for those of us in the criminal justice reform business. To be sure, there is the danger of over-correction. We should be mindful of babies and bathwater.  Our desire to transform the justice system should not be heedless -- we cannot blithely dispense with practices that have proven to be effective at curbing local crime or core principles (e.g. due process) that continue to make the American justice system a model for many countries around the world.

Our current criminal justice moment does offer some challenges for someone like me who lived through the bad old days when urban life really was defined by high levels of street crime and disorder.  Starting my professional career in 1990, I was profoundly shaped by the era when isolated and incremental criminal justice reform was the best that could ever be achieved -- and even this took a huge measure of political skill along with a healthy dose of luck.

These years profoundly shaped my worldview. They taught me to focus on the importance of using empirical evidence, establishing realistic goals, and promoting neighborhood safety. They also impressed upon me the value of using plain language that is not ideologically freighted in order to speak to as wide an audience as possible.

In recent days, I have been attempting in my writing to bring these values forward while adapting to the exigencies (and passions) of our current moment.  Here are a few examples:

Why We Need to Rethink Misdemeanor Justice (Governing)

Can We Stop Both Crime and Incarceration? (Public Books)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Electrifying Sounds

In 1994, I was living in Providence, Rhode Island and supporting myself by taking on a bunch of different writing projects, one of which was writing music criticism for the local paper -- The Providence Journal.  It was good fun, allowing me to see a bunch of great bands (Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, etc. etc.) on someone else's dime. Alas, these were the days before the Internet, so all of the concert and album reviews I wrote are basically lost to the sands of time.  (Note to the ProJo: please digitize your archives!)  Doing a recent pre-spring cleaning, I found some of the pieces that I wrote, a few of which I have decided to post here, just so they don't disappear completely.









Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Safety and Well-Being



Today at the Robin Hood Foundation, the Center for Court Innovation co-hosted a panel on neighborhood safety with Neighbors in Action and the Decarcerated podcast.  Panelists included Marlon PetersonAmy EllenbogenErica Mateo, and Mark Winston Griffith.

Thanks in no small part to the good work of moderator Errol Louis, the conversation was lively and broad-ranging.  The idea behind the event was to encourage a paradigm shift away from conventional law enforcement (arrest, prosecution, incarceration) as the primary response to local crime.


In making this case, the panel highlighted work currently underway in various parts of Brooklyn -- places like Brownsville, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant -- that seeks to engage at-risk populations, address chronic victimization, combat bias, re-make the built environment, and provide positive pathways for local young people, among other things.

The panelists were united in arguing that safety means more than simply the absence of crime.  Together, they offered a vision of vibrant community life that foregrounded the absence of fear -- including fear of over-aggressive policing -- and the building of trust, which I took to mean not just trust among neighbors but between local residents and government.

Given that the conversation took place at Robin Hood, a foundation that is famous for its insistence on rigorous performance metrics, Errol Louis asked about how community well-being should be measured.  This area is ripe for more thought.  The panelists emphasized that building community cohesion takes years.  They also pointed to the history of racism and community disinvestment in this country as realities that must be dealt with if we hope to build public trust and confidence in government.

While acknowledging the obstacles and challenges to creating healthy communities, the tone of the conversation was hopeful. The panelists encouraged both government and philanthropy to make long-term investments in the kinds of groups that are serving as connective tissue at the neighborhood level.  (This echoes a point that Patrick Sharkey made in his recent book, Uneasy Peace -- that the improvements in public safety in American cities over the past generation owe a lot to the unglamorous work done on the ground by local non-profits.)

The final word for me came from Erica Mateo, who talked about the need for tangible goals, reasonable expectations, and small victories.  It requires patience of course, but I believe that if you put together enough small victories that, over time, it can add up to significant change.