Thursday, September 26, 2019

Joan Petersilia

I never met Joan Petersilia, the award-winning Stanford Law professor who passed away earlier this week, but she was an influential person in my life.  She was part of a small pantheon of creative thinkers who were writing about criminal justice in a grounded, pragmatic way as the Center for Court Innovation was emerging as an institution.  Along with people like Herman Goldstein and Malcolm Feeley and George Kelling, Petersilia demonstrated that it was possible to a) write in plain, understandable language, b) bridge the worlds of theory and practice, and c) occupy a space that is open to good ideas and input across a broad ideological spectrum.  I have attempted to carry forward  these values in my own work. 

While I never was in the same room with Petersilia, I did have a relationship with her. She was a good email correspondent. A lot of the tributes I have read since Petersilia's passing have highlighted her warmth and generosity. I can personally attest to these qualities. She was nice enough to offer a blurb for Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform, the book that I wrote with Aubrey Fox.  Even more important, she agreed to participate in the interviews we were conducting around the topic of failure in the criminal justice system.  I think this conversation offers a window into how her mind worked.  This passage in particular has stuck with me:

There’s a long history of over-promising and under-delivering that has contributed to the constant pendulum swings in punishment practices.  There’s nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform that says that we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15 or 20 percent. And to achieve those rather modest outcomes, you have to get everything right – the right staff, delivering the right program, at the right time in the offender’s life, and in a supportive community environment. We just have to be more honest about that, and my sense is that we have not been publically forthcoming because we’ve assumed that we would not win public support with modest results.  I was naive about the impact that intermediate sanctions would have on prison commitments, and have become much more realistic about what success we can have, and what the financial costs will be. It isn’t that we can’t deliver effective programs, but we usually don’t do the implementation groundwork nor fund them sufficiently. The field is littered with broken promises in this regard, and I am trying not to make that mistake around reentry programs. In California, I make it a habit to tell elected officials and correctional practitioners that in the short term, it’s not possible to deliver good programs and save money at the same time. I feel that I’ve been able to sell more modest expectations in California, but I’m not sure if that works in other states. It takes a lot of education and working closely with decisionmakers, but it is worth it.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I have quoted this passage. As the rhetoric about criminal justice gets more heated and more aspirational, with many folks clamoring for the complete transformation of the system from soup to nuts, I find myself particularly missing Petersilia's voice.  Her credibiltiy, her realism, and her modesty will be difficult to replace.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

“If you are not safe, nothing else matters”

I wrote this review of Thomas Abt's new book "Bleeding Out" for the New York Law Journal

We are living in what might be called the golden age of criminal justice reform literature. In the wake of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s chart-topping, game-changing 2010 investigation of the intersection of race and criminal justice, have come an avalanche of related books. Ordinary Injustice by Amy Bach, Charged by Emily Bazelon, Punishment Without Crime by Alexandra Natapoff, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton…the list continues to grow. 

These works have a couple of things in common.  By and large, they are books that highlight the real and urgent problem of mass incarceration – the grim reality that more than 2.3 million Americans are currently locked up behind bars. Another thing they have in common is that they spend preciously little time talking about actually fighting crime. 
Thomas Abt’s Bleeding Out (Basic Books) fills an important gap in the emerging criminal justice canon. Abt, a former Manhattan prosecutor who worked at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, writes about the seemingly intractable problem of urban violence, which he calls the “pinnacle of social injustice.”   
While Alexander and those who have followed in her wake tend to focus on how the system mistreats the accused and the incarcerated, Abt takes as his subject the mistreatment of the people and places that are victimized by high rates of violent crime, and gun crime in particular. As Abt makes clear, even as we look to build a justice system that is truly fair and compassionate, we must not forget the devastating effects of violent behavior on our streets. 
This is not just a conservative talking point. Indeed, for Abt, reducing the homicide rate is the first step toward achieving broader social change. According to Abt, “high rates of violent crime are the structural linchpin of urban poverty, trapping poor people in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.” Quoting the human rights lawyer Gary Haugen, Abt argues “If you are not safe, nothing else matters.”  
In making the case for the importance of combating violence in places like Baltimore, St. Louis, and Chicago, Abt has not conducted new and original research. Nor does he advance a novel theory. Instead, his primary contribution is one of synthesis: he provides readers with a brisk summary of some of the greatest crime control thinkers of the past half century.
Drawing on the seminal work of Lawrence Sherman and David Weisburd, Abt makes the point that crime “clusters inside America’s distressed neighborhoods, but it does not do so uniformly.  Instead it concentrates among small groups of people, places and things.” 
Abt also quotes approvingly from the grandmother of urban theorists, the great Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace…of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are.  It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” 
Combining these two insights, Abt proposes an approach to urban violence that seeks to target the awful might of the modern criminal justice apparatus as surgically as possible , so that Jacobs’ informal mechanisms of social control can do their work in a peaceful fashion. Violence, he argues, is a big problem that actually demands small solutions: .
Urban violence imposes tremendous costs on poor communities and the public at large, but because it is highly concentrated among a few people, places, and behaviors, it is actually “small” in terms of policy…we can do a lot with a little. 
Abt espouses an anti-violence agenda that balances help (investments in community non-profits, street outreach programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy) with the strategic use of punishment (incapacitating chronic offenders).  
Here, Abt is particularly indebted to the work of David Kennedy, the architect of the “focused deterrence” model of crime prevention. Kennedy’s model attempts to focus the energies of both justice agencies and community groups on those individuals within a given community who are most at-risk of engaging in violent behavior, particularly those who are already on probation or parole for prior criminal activity. These individuals are offered a choice: they can take advantage of services and be reintegrated into the community or they can experience the full weight of local law enforcement agencies.  
Kennedy’s focused deterrence model was first tested in Boston in the 1990s, to remarkable effect – researchers documented that it contributed to a significant reduction in youth homicide.  Since then, the model has been adapted in dozens of other American cities.  A recent review of the research on focused deterrence conducted by the Campbell Collaboration found that there is strong empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the model.  

In writing about focused deterrence and other anti-violence strategies, Abt is driven by a question that many of the current books about criminal justice do not even bother to ask: how can we change the behavior of those who are involved in the most damaging kinds of criminal conduct? 
In attempting to answer this question, there are certain avenues that Abt does not explore fully. One is culture.  Why is the rate of homicide five times higher in the US than in Canada or the United Kingdom?  Is the easy availability of handguns the primary explanation? Or is there something in the American DNA (eg. the myth of the gunfighter) that encourages the idea that violence is an appropriate way to resolve disputes?  Do our violent delights (first-person shooter games, gangster movies, etc.) necessarily entail violent ends?
Like many commentators, Abt spends a good chunk of his book looking at the persistence of racial disparities in the justice system. Another, arguably more pronounced, disparity is mentioned only in passing: gender.  Roughly 9 out of 10 homicides in the US are committed by men. Why is this?  Does biology explain the gender gap?  Is there something amiss in the way we think about and perform masculinity?  Are there other possible explanations?
While Abt leaves these questions unanswered, he has, in the end, made a valuable contribution to our current conversation about crime and justice.  In particular, Bleeding Out makes a strong case that “sustainable crime control does not happen without social justice, and vice versa.”  These goals are often viewed in conflict with each other, but Abt argues that they are inextricably bound together.  
Combating persistent violence in urban communities should be a national priority.  But politics often gets in the way of clear thinking about how to move forward. Abt has a clear message for demagogues on both sides of the aisle.  He argues that conservatives should abandon rhetoric (eg “black-on-black crime”) that implicitly advances ideas of racial inferiority. In a similar vein, he tells progressive activists that “characterizing all of criminal justice as irredeemably racist or illegitimate does not actually advance a broader social justice agenda.” 
Here’s hoping that all of our presidential candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, heed Abt’s compelling call for change.  

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.