Saturday, October 26, 2019

Transition


Last week, I wrote to staff at the Center for Court Innovation to let them know that I have decided to step down as director of the agency.  This is an excerpt:

I have worked at the Center for Court Innovation since it was founded in 1996. The Center has served as my base as I have gotten married, raised two daughters, and established a home in New York.  Thanks to the Center, I have traveled to dozens of places across the country and around the world that I might not have experienced otherwise. (This includes Syracuse and London, two places that I have gotten to know after the Center established outposts there.) Thanks to the Center, I have established enduring friendships that have sustained me through good times and bad.  

Perhaps most important, the Center has given me a way of being in the world -- namely a commitment to bridging the worlds of pragmatism and idealism, doing and thinking, and community and government (among other boundaries).  To say that I owe this agency a debt of gratitude is a serious understatement.  I would literally not be who I am were it not for the Center for Court Innovation.
The Center for Court Innovation has come a long way since we first opened our doors in the 1990s. Back then, no one had heard of the organization. Indeed, our name struck many people as non-sensical or oxymoronic. The most powerful criminal justice official in New York City at the time, the Manhattan District Attorney, was not a fan. There were other, more well-established agencies occupying similar corners.  Fear levels were high, jail cells were full, and the politics of criminal justice were dominated by calls to be “tough on crime.” 
Our first director, John Feinblatt, guided the organization into and through these strong headwinds. By the time I took over, in late 2001, the Center had considerable momentum and a solid reputation.  When I interviewed with Jonathan Lippman and Mary McCormick for the job, part of my pitch was that it was time for the Center to move from the margins of the justice system and into the mainstream. Intellectually, this meant legitimizing and spreading our ideas through any means we could find -- books, training curricula, rigorous research, etc. Programmatically, this meant attempting to bring the strategies that we had implemented at the Midtown Community Court and Red Hook Community Justice Center – treating people humanely, offering alternatives to incarceration and fines, and engaging the community in doing justice – to the rest of the justice system in New York.  
I am proud to say that we have made enormous progress on all of these fronts.  Many of the ideas that the Center has espoused – problem-solving justice, procedural fairness, community engagement, and more – have come to be embraced by frontline practitioners. We now employ dozens of staffers in New York City’s centralized courts – resource coordinators, social workers, case managers, and others – who provide judges with meaningful alternative strategies, both pre-trial and post-adjudication.  New York stands on the brink of closing the jail complex on Rikers Island – a development that would not have been possible but for the Center’s research, strategic assistance, and operating programs, which have shown that it is in fact possible to offer alternatives to incarceration that improve, rather than undermine, public safety.  Every state in the US has established problem-solving courts and created an infrastructure to support them. 
To achieve these kinds of wins, we have had to grow significantly as an agency.  We now have a budget approaching $80 million. We will soon have more than 600 staffers. Over the years, we have won numerous awards for our efforts to improve justice, including the Peter F. Drucker Prize for Nonprofit Innovation.  When he was Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg said, "No one has been more effective at finding ways to reduce recidivism than the Center for Court Innovation." And according to Cory Booker, “The Center for Court Innovation is right in the sweet spot of making America true to herself.”  
For all of the success of the past twenty plus years, the story of the Center for Court Innovation is far from over.  The transformation of the justice system in New York City is well underway, but it is not complete.  There is much more work to be done not just locally, but nationally and internationally, if we are going to honor the fundamental humanity of those whose lives touch the justice system, whether as defendants, victims, or litigants.
The race is not yet finished, but I have come to the conclusion that I have taken the Center as far as I can.  It is time to pass the baton to someone with the vision and the drive to take our internal infrastructure to the next level, to diversify and expand our funding base, and to advocate for our new initiatives in the marketplace of ideas. In making this call, I am driven by my love for the Center, which I believe is a unique force for good in the world. I believe that a new director will benefit the long-term health of the organization. 
I have managed the Center through a number of important transitions, including introducing the agency to new mayoral and presidential administrations and holding the organization steady as we have lost key staffers, including the late, great Alfred Siegel.  While change can be unsettling, I am committed to making the transition to new leadership as smooth as possible.  I will remain as director until a new leader is hired.  To ensure continuity and the transfer of important information and relationships, I also intend to stay at the Center until my successor has had some time to get acclimated.  I will become a senior fellow working part-time on a handful of writing projects. 
I cannot close without thanking you for your patience and indulgence and support.  I am so grateful to work with hundreds of talented people who are willing not just to decry injustice but to roll up their sleeves and try to make change happen right now in the real world.  I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but there is something heroic about this work, which every day must confront the imperfectability of human beings, the status quo bias of bureaucracies, and the very real possibility of failure. It has been the great privilege of my life to see this work in action and to attempt to advance it, however modestly.