EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR COURTNEY BRYAN
ON THE YEAR EVERYTHING CHANGED
I returned to the Center for Court Innovation in the role of executive director on March 16, the same week that our staff started working from home. When I accepted the position, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I had already worked twice at the Center and was looking forward to leading an organization that inspired and shaped my career. Little did I know that a virus was about to change everything.
COVID-19 exacted a devastating toll. We know the big impacts: more than 338,000 lives lost by the end of the year, an alarming number that continues to grow; more than 10 million jobs disappeared; millions of families facing severe economic hardship, including housing and food insecurity; and millions of students falling behind in their educations. Many of us lost loved ones and battled the illness ourselves.
2020 was also a year of racial reckoning. The murders by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, and many other Black and Brown people inspired millions to demand justice and a fundamental transformation of the justice system to root out racism and white supremacy. The pandemic hit Black and Brown communities the hardest, highlighting the racist policies—such as redlining, poverty, lack of adequate health care resources, and limited access to healthier food options—that have made those communities more vulnerable.
Listen to the power of restorative justice in schools: Restorative Justice Is Racial Justice
Meeting Pressing Needs
At the Center, the staff and the communities we serve met both COVID-19 and the racial reckoning with resilience and creativity. As advocates for community-driven safety solutions, we listened to community members to meet their most pressing needs. We distributed over 190,000 masks, gloves, and hygiene kits and made nearly 13,000 grocery deliveries. We did thousands of “wellness check-ins” and worked with clients to help them obtain urgent housing repairs and get rent adjustments to help them stay in their homes. And we helped the city release from jail nearly 300 people at risk of contracting COVID-19, allowing them to finish their sentences through supervision in the community, and providing assistance and services to ensure safety. Across our programs, we helped over 7,000 people stay safely in their communities and avoid incarceration.
We also engaged in self-reflection, analyzing how our work can be more anti-racist and how we can encourage the agencies we work with to do the same. To support a smaller police presence, we released Shrinking the Footprint of Police: Six Ideas for Enhancing Safety to promote restorative justice and community building to reduce the harms of the conventional legal system.
We know firsthand that these ideas work because we’ve brought them to life. Our violence interrupters are mediating conflicts before they escalate. We’re providing training to local residents in community organizing, human-centered design, and re-envisioning public spaces to promote people’s wellbeing. We’re expanding the use of restorative justice in court- and community-based settings. And we’re helping making Family Court less adversarial with the goal of providing resources to support family stability and get infants off to a healthy start.
Nationally, we are making racial equity a key component of our consulting and training, seeking to ensure that jurisdictions across the country identify and address systemic inequities. And, as a bridge between government and communities, we redoubled our advocacy to end mass incarceration, supporting system change with neighborhood-based and community-led programming that prevents system involvement and reduces reliance on jail.
Keeping People out of Jail
Our Supervised Release Program contributed to a 40 percent reduction in the city’s pretrial jail population in the wake of New York State’s bail reforms, and served nearly 4,000 participants in 2020 in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Our alternative-to-incarceration programming helped an additional 3,000 remain safely in their communities rather than spend time in jail. We noted in our report Reducing Pretrial Detention in New York City that being detained pretrial can cause many harms, including penalizing people by setting unaffordable bail and compromising public safety through the lasting and damaging effects jail has on people’s lives after they are released. After amendments to the initial bail reform took effect in the second half of the year, we carefully monitored what happened, alerting policymakers to a subsequent seven to 11 percent increase attributable to the amendments in the pretrial jail population.
From WNYC/Gothamist: City’s Jail Population Rises After Bail Reform Gets A Rewrite
From The Economist: The virus should speed efforts to shrink America’s prison population
Supporting Transformation Around the Country
Despite travel restrictions, we continued to support justice transformation around the country. We have provided court and other justice practitioners with online workshops, virtual drop-in sessions, and one-on-one advice as they look for safe and fair ways to use videoconferencing to continue their work during lockdown.
Even with most of our staff working from home, we maintained ties to our communities, clients, and partners. This annual report offers only a small taste of what we accomplished, focusing on four areas: COVID-19, housing, preventing violence, and inspiring youth.
In each of these areas, we relied on our unique skills: serving as a bridge between government and neighborhoods, focusing on community-led solutions, and using research and our on-the-ground experience to push for systemic transformation.
Although this was not the year I’d planned for upon my return to the Center, I’m proud that we kept our hearts and ears open, supporting each other, meeting the needs of our clients and communities, and strengthening our resolve to transform justice.
MEETING COMMUNITIES' URGENT NEEDS
The pandemic has not affected everyone equally. Some communities have been harmed more than others—far more. Black and Brown people; populations already suffering from disinvestment, structural racism, and inequality. These are our clients, our partners, our staff. Many of us lost loved ones, and we all faced new challenges as we juggled stresses at home while showing up for work, family, clients, and colleagues.
Even as things closed, the Center remained open for business. We adapted. We supported our staff’s transition to remote work, providing flexible schedules, virtual social gatherings, and the technology to connect from home. We listened to our communities and partners to identify their needs and figure out how to meet them. Every department at the Center contributed to the effort.
Our neighborhood-based programs stayed connected to their communities by moving their work online with virtual gatherings, workshops, and programming. We supported resident-led councils in 17 housing projects, helping them survey thousands of residents to identify their most pressing needs and then helping residents deliver essential supplies, food, and masks to their neighbors.
Our court-based staff stayed in touch with clients virtually. They provided over 500 phones and devices to those who didn’t have them, and when the courts reopened for a time, they met clients in person, following strict safety protocols. And our researchers tracked the numbers, studying the impact of COVID-19 on jail populations, bail reform, and the criminal justice system writ large.
HELPING TENANTS AVOID EVICTION AND GET REPAIRS
I was having issues with NYCHA and the mold in my home for years. I finally got assistance from housing when Ms. Yvette called and reported my issue. They made an appointment ASAP, came and treated the mold, and painted the wall in my room.
— Client in the second trimester of her first pregnancy who had been asking NYCHA for a mold inspection for over 3 years
The pandemic increased housing instability, threatening thousands with the loss of a safe, affordable, secure place to live. While the federal and some state governments issued eviction moratoriums through the end of 2020, many families struggled to pay their rent. Tenants had questions or needed repairs, but didn’t know where to go since offices, resource centers, and courts were closed.
The Center for Court Innovation has a long-standing commitment to securing and improving housing. Our work aims to prevent evictions and share resources with tenants.
Throughout the pandemic our housing resource centers helped people obtain and retain secure, safe housing and supported tenants fighting for repairs. Our staff conducted virtual needs assessments of over 11,000 public housing residents between April and July, connecting them to legal assistance, rental aid, and social services. Our Upstate office began working with the city of Syracuse and residents to resolve landlord/tenant issues and address illegal evictions and lead abatement.
In Harlem, and the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook and Brownsville, staff partnered with tenant associations, the New York City Housing Authority, and local residents to provide on-site assistance with lease recertification, repairs, and readiness for when the moratorium ended.
Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic we served over 6,000 New Yorkers dealing with housing issues. We also advised the New York City Housing Authority on their transformation plan based on our years of work with public housing tenants.
Watch to learn about our help center: Helping Tenants Help Themselves
From the New York Daily News: Fixing NYCHA, apartment by apartment
CHANGING NORMS, REDUCING VIOLENCE
When we talk about addressing gun violence, it’s about changing community norms and providing different alternatives.
— Rahson Johnson, Save Our Streets Crown Heights
From abolishing police departments to shrinking their role, communities across the country have been debating how to respond to continued police violence. Throughout our years of violence prevention work, we have supported programs where communities lead the way in maintaining health and safety. Our violence interruption workers are an alternative to police, offering a way to prevent violence and a plan of action for when violence does occur.
Our street teams are on-call in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. When an incident happens, we support families and victims with services, including grief counseling and spiritual support. We also work with all sides to prevent retaliation, and we organize neighborhood rallies to reiterate community norms against gun violence.
We also address the overlap between gun violence and intimate partner violence, leading workshops and educational campaigns to engage community members, offering them the tools to intervene and talk about healthy relationships.
We contributed to knowledge about the causes and context of gun violence among young people with our groundbreaking study, “Gotta Make Your Own Heaven”: Guns, Safety and the Edge of Adulthood in New York City. The investigation relied on field researchers with street experience who spent months gaining the respect and trust of the more than 300 young people interviewed as part of the research. Those interviewed cited the lack of protection from police and a fear they themselves could be killed by law enforcement as major factors in their decision to carry a gun.
Numerous outlets have highlighted the work of our violence interrupters. Read articles by The New Yorker (How to Defund the Police) and Bloomberg CityLab (As Murders Rise, New York City Turns to a Police Alternative)
Read about our study of gun violence among young people in The New York Times: Why These Young Men Carry Guns
ADAPTING TO A VIRTUAL WORLD
As with the rest of the Center’s work, our youth programs adapted to a virtual world and continued to offer arts and entrepreneurship workshops—holding virtual photography exhibitions to showcase their work documenting the beauty and resilience of their neighborhoods, designing communal, yet socially-distant, mobile healing spaces, and making masks to keep their communities safe. Through youth-led research, community betterment projects, and entrepreneurship programs, the Center’s youth programs continue to engage with future community changemakers.
Young people participating in programs across the Center united to advocate for New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program. The program disproportionately helps Black and Brown young people and was threatened by COVID-19-related budget cuts. More than 50 young people joined the campaign, which led to the program’s partial reinstatement. Members also engaged more than 5,000 New Yorkers as part of an effort to address voter disenfranchisement and help people register to vote. In June, the Center launched a youth advisory board comprised of current program members and alumni to help guide youth work at the Center.