These days, it is difficult to go more than a couple of hours without coming across a fundamental critique of the criminal justice system. Too many people are behind bars. People of color and other minority groups are not treated equitably. Survivors of abuse feel re-victimized by the very agencies that seek to protect them.
The list goes on and on.
Reduced to their essence, these critiques highlight the need to improve the fairness of our justice system. At the Center for Court Innovation, a non-profit organization that seeks to reform the justice system and enhance the well-being of communities, we are working to translate this idea into practice every day.
For us, improving fairness means striving to reduce the justice system’s footprint while maintaining public safety. This includes seeking to prevent crime before it happens, creating off-ramps to divert cases out of the system, and offering meaningful alternatives to conventional sanctions like fines and jail sentences.
Our recently-released annual report details the efforts we are making to achieve these goals across New York City and around the world. The report tells our story through both personal narratives and numbers. Our operating programs touch the lives of more than 70,000 people each year, providing participants with a pathway out of the justice system and toward a better life.
What does this look like in practice? Here are three snapshots from programs we operate in the borough of Brooklyn, N.Y.
In central Brooklyn, we have created Neighbors in Action, a program that seeks to improve the health and safety of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, two vibrant neighborhoods that have also had significant public safety issues in recent years. Originally known as the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, when it was launched out of storefront offices in 1998, the initiative was recently renamed Neighbors in Action to better reflect its varied efforts to promote community cohesion.
Among these efforts is Make It Happen, which offers supportive services to young men of color who have been negatively impacted by community violence. In 2018, Make It Happen held 352 therapy group sessions.
Peaceful Conflict Resolution
Neighbors in Action also trains young people to become community organizers, and advances peaceful conflict resolution with the help of credible messengers – individuals with the kind of deep credibility and local roots necessary to effectively reach at-risk.
All of these investments are geared toward enhancing local health and safety without resorting to conventional law enforcement responses – arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.
Two miles away from Neighbors in Action, in Brownsville, we are operating a community justice center that seeks to prevent crime by linking local youth to pro-social activities (including entrepreneurial opportunities) and improving the physical landscape of the neighborhood.
With the help of the Robin Hood Foundation, Propel Capital, and other funders, the Brownsville Community Justice Center also seeks to forge better responses after crime occurs, offering meaningful alternatives to incarceration. In 2018, it helped 118 young adults and 25 adults avoid time behind bars by linking them to local programming instead.
In Brownsville, we are also working to improve fairness through Legal Hand, a neighborhood storefront where trained local volunteers provide free legal information and referrals to help their neighbors resolve housing, family, immigration, and other issues. Launched with the support of New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Legal Hand is an ambitious effort to close the access-to-justice gap and empower local residents to address the problems that concern them.
Finally, in downtown Brooklyn, we operate Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, an ambitious effort to help improve case processing and court outcomes out of the borough’s centralized criminal courthouse. Central to this effort is a supervised release program. Initially launched with the help of the New York State Court System and subsequently expanded by the New York City’s Mayors Office of Criminal Justice, our supervised release program in Brooklyn seeks to reduce the number of people held in jail simply because they can’t afford bail.
Participants are able to remain in their communities and meet with an assigned social worker while their cases are pending, without ever having to post monetary bail to maintain their freedom pretrial. With support from the Art for Justice Fund, we are also exploring ways to encourage judges to use less onerous forms of bail and get cases ready for trial more quickly.
With any luck, all of these efforts should be enhanced and facilitated by the criminal justice reforms recently passed in Albany.
As exciting as these changes are, the truth is that the work of justice reform is far from finished. We still have a long way to go before we can say that we have a justice system that is truly fair, effective, and humane.
At the Center for Court Innovation, we will continue to advance these goals, working with our partners, both inside and outside of government, to put forward a positive vision of justice in New York.
Greg Berman is director of the Center for Court Innovation and co-author of Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press). He can be found on Twitter @GregBerman50. He welcomes comments from readers.