Kindness and Accountability


I have contributed a short essay to a new book called Humane Justice that looks at the role that compassion plays in the criminal justice system.  I chose to write about one of my favorite books from last year -- The City Game by Matthew Goodman. I have pasted my contribution, which is entitled "Kindness and Accountability: Lessons from the City College Basketball Scandal in New York," below, but I encourage you to check out the complete book, which contains a broad range of essays by justice system practitioners, advocates, and those who have spent time behind bars. Special thanks to Khulisa UK, the nonprofit organization that helped to put together the collection. 

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The City Game by Matthew Goodman is a book about basketball in New York City that should be required reading for anyone interested in thinking about the meaning of justice. The setting may be grounded in a specific historical time and place, but the questions the book raises are universal: How should government respond when important social values are transgressed?  To what extent does context explain, and even dictate, behavior?  Or are we ultimately responsible for our own misdeeds as individuals?

In 1950, City College of New York (CCNY) were the national champions of college basketball in the United States.  This was an exceptional achievement: City College was regarded as a prestigious academic institution, not an athletic powerhouse.  Charging no tuition to those who met its rigorous entrance requirements, the school attracted many of the best low-income students in New York City.  The CCNY basketball team was entirely comprised of Black and Jewish students – a rarity in an era of discriminatory Jim Crow laws and de facto quota systems that limited the enrollment of Jews at many universities.

Unfortunately, the CCNY basketball team is remembered today less for their prowess on the court and more for their involvement in scandal: the entire starting five were convicted of taking bribes from gamblers to influence the outcomes of their games. 

The City Game tells this story in absorbing detail.  It catalogs the shame and guilt experienced by the participating players, all of whom were young men from modest backgrounds.  They clearly knew that what they were doing was wrong. 

They were judged harshly in the court of public opinion. For example, their coach, Nat Holman, blamed the scandal on the players’ moral deficiency: “the youngsters lacked the moral fiber to make a decision when they were faced with temptation, when those unscrupulous gamblers approached them.”

On the other hand, the players’ crimes were not isolated incidents: they were part of an endemic citywide problem.  According to Goldman:

Cops were on the take everywhere in the neighborhoods in which the players had grown up, the crooked cop as much of a local fixture as the bookie taking bets in the pool hall…When the players got into trouble with the law, everyone understood that their strongest hopes lay not in an attorney who was legally astute but one was politically well connected…The corruption was not abstract: it was both intimate and pervasive, a rotten smell that seemed to hang in the air, seeping into all aspects of [the players’] lives, reminding them always that this was the way things were done in the city.

As Goodman describes, the players paid a high price for their crimes.  After pleading guilty, all of them were effectively blackballed from playing in the National Basketball Association.  All of them suffered public humiliation.  Their lives were forever altered for the worse.

This was particularly true of Ed Warner, the only member of the CCNY team who ended up serving time behind bars.  It is perhaps no coincidence that Warner was also African-American.  Warner, who had engaged in minor misbehavior as a juvenile, served six months for his role in the CCNY scandal.  Years later, he would serve still more time after pleading guilty to selling heroin.  

Was justice served in the case of Ed Warner and the other CCNY players?  Were their life trajectories improved by their engagement with the American justice system? The City Game suggests otherwise.  The portrait the book paints is of a justice system focused on retribution at the expense of goals like rehabilitation and restoration.  

In the years since the CCNY scandal, the politics of criminal justice in the US have taken several twists and turns.  As crime rose in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, conservative voices were largely ascendant, arguing for stiffer penalties for criminal behavior.  A massive increase in the use of incarceration followed.  

More recently, as crime rates have decreased, liberal advocates have begun to dominate the public debate, focusing attention on the underlying causes of crime, including inequality and racism, and arguing for more lenient responses. Their arguments have been bolstered by a number of high-profile injustices perpetrated against African-Americans, including cases where individuals were killed by police officers in dubious circumstances.

The creative tension between the liberal and the conservative tradition is likely a permanent feature of the American criminal justice landscape – advocates of law and order will always compete with bleeding-heart liberals in the marketplace of ideas. But in recent years, there has been some movement in the US toward synthesizing the two traditions -- to acknowledge that justice demands a combination of kindness and accountability.  

Signs of this synthesis can be found in a number of different places.  For example, a group of prominent Republicans has launched Right on Crime, a campaign to reduce American reliance on prisons that they view as expensive and ineffective. Another example is the US Department of Justice’s effort to promote “evidence-based programs,” which seeks to bring a level of rigor to the business of investing in rehabilitative programming.  

Perhaps the most dynamic effort to synthesize the liberal and conservative traditions in American criminal justice has been the emergence of problem-solving courts across the country.  These programs – which include drug courts, mental health courts, community courts, and others – seek to reduce the use of incarceration by expanding the use of alternatives like drug treatment, mental health counseling, and community restitution. New York City has been at the forefront of problem-solving justice in the US, pioneering the community court model and, more recently, investing in the spread of opioid intervention courts.   

New York has changed in many ways since the days of the CCNY basketball scandal.  College basketball no longer dominates the sporting scene.  The influence of organized crime is dramatically diminished.  Perhaps most important, the justice system has undergone a cultural shift, moving away from the assembly-line and toward a more problem-solving brand of justice. It is too late for Ed Warner and his CCNY teammates, but thousands of New Yorkers are benefitting from this new approach to justice, which acknowledges the harms caused by criminal behavior without resorting to overly punitive responses, like incarceration, that can do long-term damage to individual defendants, their families and their communities.

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