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.

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