One of the things that perhaps makes this book different is that, cover to cover, the strategies are all things that you develop with systems—working within them, with their resources, with their leadership.
Urging action over analysis, Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration (The New Press, 2018), the latest book from the Center for Court Innovation, offers strategies for reformers looking to start right now to reduce the number of people sent to jail and prison.
On the occasion of its launch, the book's authors, Greg Berman, the director of the Center for Court Innovation, and Julian Adler, our director of policy and research, sat down with Matthew Watkins to talk about the reforms they're advocating. Among the topics they discuss: the value of incremental change and transforming systems from within; rethinking the justice system's response to violence; the debate over the future of New York City's Rikers Island jail facility; and the role of love in criminal justice reform.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
MATTHEW WATKINS: Hi, I'm Matthew Watkins, and you're listening to the New Thinking podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. It's a special episode today as we celebrate the release of a new book by two members of the Center for Court Innovation family. Start Here: A Roadmap to Reducing Mass Incarceration has just been published by the New Press. Joining me are its co-authors, Greg Berman, our director, and Julian Adler, our director of policy and research.
The book presents itself as a practical guide for reformers looking for proven strategies to reduce this country's reliance on prisons and jails. "We are not utopians," the authors write, "The moment for change is now." Greg, Julian, thanks very much for joining me today.
GREG BERMAN: Thank you for having us.
ADLER: Thank you.
WATKINS: Greg, maybe perhaps to start with you, and just to pick up on this "not utopians" point. The book is in many ways an optimistic one—I think quite deliberately so. The emphasis is on practical proven reforms, action over analysis, yet at the same time the chapters are strewn with cautionary notes: that change is hard won, it's generally modest, unpredictable.
At times these two ideas seem almost in conflict, but why was it important to you guys to make those points together?
BERMAN: I think that the underlying reason that we wrote this book was really, as you say, to sound an optimistic and a hopeful note. I think that there's a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of outrage right now within the field of criminal justice, and a lot of that is justified. Anyone who's spent time in Rikers Island, who's spent time in criminal courts around the country, knows that we're not living up to the standards that I think we should be setting for ourselves as a democracy.
The problems are rife, but from my perspective I think that the problems have actually been pretty well documented at this point, and I think the impulse behind this book was to pivot from problem identification and problem analysis and historical looking back, to the future, and looking forward and trying to highlight things that can be done in the here and now.
Things that can be done short of President Trump deciding that he wants to make criminal justice reform a linchpin of his administration, short of a dramatic reordering of our society, and an obliteration of things like inequality and racism, not that we shouldn't fight for those things, and not that those things aren't important.
I guess what Julian and I have spent the last year-and-a-half really digging into is a set of concrete reforms that are underway in many places, often here in New York City, often under the aegis of the Center for Court Innovation, but sometimes in other places, under probation, or courts, or prosecutors, or police doing innovative things around the country that taken together, and if well implemented in many places, we argue will reduce our reliance on incarceration, and will begin to change the mass incarceration industrial complex that exists in this country.
WATKINS: Then Julian maybe on a related note: another major message of the book to reformers is: don't be paralyzed, don't be daunted by all of the deep-seated problems out there that need to be solved. You guys write that while they certainly should be addressed, "It is not necessary to solve the problems of poverty or racism or inequality to achieve significant change within the justice system."
I'm just wondering, what have you experienced in your work here that leads you to that conclusion?
ADLER: The message of the book is if you take on the small pieces and you think about tweaks, rather than dramatic shifts in practice, that over time the cumulative effect of these things can be profound. That systems that may be historically resistant to rethinking the use of incarceration, can come around with some early wins, with some increased buy-in, and with an opportunity to really develop the capacity to innovate and to rethink operations.
BERMAN: Yeah, so I just want to double down on that point. I think that this idea that small things matter, and that small changes over time can add up to significant reform, I think is at the center of the Center for Court Innovation's approach to change, and is in fact something that we've lived every day in New York City.
Amidst all of the negative headlines that the criminal justice system in this country has engendered, it's super important to remember that here in New York City over the last generation, we have seen sustained reductions in incarceration, and sustained reductions in crime, go hand-in-hand. I think that sometimes in our little world, we get tired of saying that, but it's important to reiterate it, because the public polling data suggests that even in New York City the majority of people don't know that story.
WATKINS: What about then though, this idea that you guys quote in the book, I think it comes from Peter Drucker, is that right? The management theorist, have I got that? That "culture eats strategy for breakfast," this idea that the best laid plans will be undone, or shrugged off, by entrenched systems and habits of mind. You guys are both laughing!
BERMAN: I think it's fair to say that you're pointing out a fault line of the book and probably of our two personalities, which is I think that we want to be helpful, and that we also want to be realistic and acknowledge the tremendous obstacles that exist to change. Tim Murray, who used to run the Pretrial Justice Institute, has been one of my mentors, often would tell me that the criminal justice system is such a complicated beast, that no matter how much you poke and prod it, it has this amazing elasticity and it can conform back to its original shape.
That's true. I think the obstacles to cultural change are enormous, and we shouldn't underrate those, and at the same time I believe that we should celebrate small victories and small successes, and that small successes eventually add up to significant change. If you push too hard on that is that contradictory? Probably, but I think that both things are true.
ADLER: Matt, I think this does lead back to the question you posed moments ago regarding jumping in and taking on a small piece, because I think part of the wisdom in "culture eating strategy for breakfast" is that if you come on full bore and look to dramatically change an institution overnight, that culture will eat strategy for breakfast, and you will see resistance to change and regression to the mean.
So, when you take on small pieces, and you think about small victories, what you're essentially doing is, yes, you're being strategic on the one hand, but you're doing the work of culture change, which comes down to changing hearts and minds, which you do see with a gradual approach that doesn't feel foisted from the outside by consultants who come into town, but rather feels more homegrown.
I do think one of the things that perhaps makes Start Here different than other books that propose reform strategies is that cover to cover, the strategies are all things that you develop with systems, working within them, with their resources, with their leadership, and not just superimposing imperialistically a model that's been tested somewhere else overnight.
WATKINS: Why don't we start then drilling down a bit into some of the specific headline reforms that you guys are proposing in the book. Starting maybe with alternatives to incarceration. So specifically how do we—because some of the experiences, some of this book is drawing on the work of this place obviously—how do we work with prosecutors and judges to create these options? Then maybe the harder step of getting them to use those options, and what does the evidence suggest are the benefits?
BERMAN: I think alternatives to incarceration are at the heart of this book, and are at the heart of the Center for Court Innovation, and at two stages of the process, both pretrial, while someone's case is pending, and then post-adjudication, once someone's innocence or culpability has been determined, what happens then to an individual? I think our argument has been that there are some exceptional cases where people are an immediate threat to themselves, or to society, and that they do need to be segregated, and an incarceration does have a role.
I want to admit to that upfront, but I think our argument is that we've defaulted to incarceration over and over again, and often I would argue that we've defaulted to incarceration over and over again, because we simply haven't provided judges and attorneys with options that they trust. I've some sympathy for front-line practitioners who feel like "if the choice is between nothing and incarceration, I'm going to choose incarceration actually, because A, it might incapacitate someone, and B, there is at least some hope that there might be behavioral change there."
I guess what we've shown through the book, and also through the practice of the Center for Court Innovation, is that you can build a third path, which looks like a meaningful provision of social services in the community, whether that be drug treatment, or mental health counseling, or job training, or other cognitive behavioral therapies.
You can apply a modicum of monitoring to them, so that they have teeth, and so there's a measure of accountability, because I think that's a very important component that we don't want to overlook. And if you provide judges and attorneys with these options, they will embrace them actually, they get it. So the resistance to change, while we've been talking about it, that's significant at a systemic level, if you talk to individual judges and attorneys, you can get them to change their practice over time.
WATKINS: What about alternatives to incarceration and the question of violence? You guys write quite a bit in the book about the necessity from a reformists perspective of taking a new approach to violent offenses. Is there a role for alternative incarceration there as well?
ADLER: Yes, and I think taking a step back, there are to points that we make in the book that I think are critical in responding to that question. The first, is recognizing that if the goal is to significantly reduce the overreliance on jails and prisons in the United States, then there's going to have to be a reckoning with the status quo response to violent crime.
That it's not going to get it done just by focusing on lower level crimes, or lower level drug offenses. You will make a dent in the jail population and perhaps the prison population, but you're not going to certainly see an end to mass incarceration unless you rethink violence. The second point is that to the extent that there is a science and a practice around assessing violence, that it's early days yet, and that there is a lot of room to develop a better practice and technology around identifying who poses a credible and imminent threat to others, versus who's been charged with a violent crime, but could be safely and effectively managed in a community-based setting.
That argument is bolstered by social science research that has shown that higher risk defendants, higher risk individuals fare better in targeted alternative programming than lower risk individuals. We're encouraged that there is a science to suggest that higher risk individuals, who in most places are currently sitting in jails and prisons, would fare far better both for themselves, their families, and their communities, if they were in the community receiving services.
It's a necessity if the goal is to end, or dramatically reduce the crisis of mass incarceration.
WATKINS: Another series of reforms in the book are to do with what we call procedural justice. This idea that the justice system needs to treat defendants with respect, ensure they understand the process, that they perceive it as being fair. These are obviously inherently noble goals, and we should recognize the fundamental humanity of everybody in the system, but how would that shift actually concretely reduce the number of people behind bars?
BERMAN: I think that procedural justice is maybe example 1A of how a small shift in behavior and attitudes could eventually, if you follow the dominoes, reap significant rewards. What we've seen in places like the Red Hook Community Justice Center that are designed from soup to nuts, from top to bottom, to communicate respect and dignity to anyone who enters the doors of that place, defendants, victims, community members.
The programs communicate that verbally, and the architecture communicates that nonverbally. The interaction with the judge is particularly important, and so what we've seen in a place like Red Hook, is that we've been able to pretty significantly change the way defendants in particular experience the criminal justice process.
To cite just two small examples, we took away the holding cells, the bars in the holding cells, and used treated glass instead. Small gesture, doesn't change that much, but it communicates that this place is trying to do justice differently than other places. Similarly, we lowered the height of the bench in the courtroom, so that the judge was able to make eye contact with defendants, rather than looking down the top of their heads.
Then we've been blessed in a place like Red Hook, which we helped create in partnership with the Brooklyn DAs office and the New York state court system and the city of New York, Red Hook has been blessed with a judge named Alex Calabrese who embodies from the get go the idea that everyone needs to be treated humanely and decently. What independent evaluators from the National Center for State Courts came in, and when they evaluated the project, they were able to track significant reductions in recidivist behavior by defendants, both juveniles, and adults.
Their conclusion was that people had decided to comply with the law and engage in law-abiding behavior, because they now saw the law as a legitimate actor. They believed in it, and wanted to comply with their court orders. I think it's a profound shift that has long-term consequences, not just for the individual defendants who experience it, but really for communities.
We see such, in so many of the neighborhoods we work with in New York City, we see just staggeringly low levels of confidence and in public confidence and justice, even though this organization at some level is built, is predicated on a critique of government, and a critique of justice institutions. We need the courts, we need prosecutors, we need police, and we need to take very seriously the need to restore public trust in them, because the trust is the glue that binds our society together I would argue.
I don't want to suggest that procedural justice alone is the silver bullet that's going solve all our problems, but I would argue that it's an important component into any substantial reform in the American Criminal Justice system.
ADLER: I think the other feature to note about procedural justice, is that you also see increased satisfaction on the part of government actors practicing procedural justice. It re-orients them to the values and principles that drove them to public service, and it re-animates their interactions with defendants, and overall increases their I think appetite for reform.
Again, revisiting your questions early on about what's the purpose of strategic thought if culture at the end of the day is going to eat it for breakfast? Well again, procedural justice is interesting, it's a strategy in a sense, but it really reorients the culture of a courtroom in ways that are profound to the individual on both sides of the bench so to speak.
WATKINS: Then the final series of package of reforms has to do with moving further upstream from actual incarceration, which is this question of engaging community members, and working with them to prevent crime. That's another major focus of the work that we do here, but what does that actually look like on the ground? What are the lessons that we have learned from doing that?
ADLER: I think for the criminal justice wonks who choose to read the book, or take a look, the thing in here that I think makes it unusual, is in a sense that we start with crime prevention as a decision point. In criminal justice reform, in the context of most initiatives that you see nationally, decision point one is arrest. I think that implicit in this book is the argument, well it's not implicit, but that's not the correct decision point to start with.
That criminal justice reform needs to start at the level of crime prevention, and that there needs to be a significant investment in crime prevention, in part because even in a society that uses jail incarceration and prison far less than ours does, most societies are going to have incarcerative institutions for folks who commit certain types of violent crimes, that even if they're not high risk for future offense, they're normatively indefensible candidates for release.
A long way of saying that the best antidote to reducing individuals incarcerated for violent offenses, is to prevent violent crime before it takes place.
BERMAN: Yeah, I guess I would just add, to that I would add that I think what we've seen in the neighborhoods that we work in, is that it is possible to promote safety without a heavy-handed law enforcement approach. That really it's about, in our field there's the term informal mechanism of social control, informal social control. That's what we want to spark and strengthen at the neighborhood level.
This is an idea that I think is not new to us, that goes back to Jane Jacobs, you can trace it through the work of Robert Putnam. You could trace it through the work of Robert Sampson, up to today. It seems like a key theme in Patrick Sharkey's new book, that neighborhoods that work together, and that neighborhoods where there are eyes on the street, where people are looking after each other, where they are trying to moderate behavior, are safe neighborhoods.
Those are the neighborhoods that people want to live in. I think what the book is arguing, is that we should be making those investments first and foremost before we make all these other investments in the formal state.
WATKINS: Then if we turn to talk a little bit about the debate over Rikers Island that's ongoing right now in New York City, and you guys write about that. There's been obviously a remarkable movement in the discussion about Rikers. The city has agreed to a timeline for closing the facility. It's just recently reached a deal for siting four new community-based jails to replace Rikers. We helped coordinate the work of the Littman Commission that recommended the closure.
I think the commission's recommendation certainly played a role in the mayor's decision. There's still a long way to go on Rikers clearly, but to what extent do you guys see what I'm arguing is a paradigm shift in the debate about Rikers. Do you see that as a vindication of the patient incrementalist approach that you lay out in the book?
BERMAN: I think that we've gotten to this point, to the brink of real significant change for a variety of reasons. I do think you want to be clear that the advocacy community did play a role in getting us to this point. I don't want to discount that, organizations like JustLeadership USA, or they all played a role in banging on the doors and pointing at the inhumanity of the system, and pointing at outrage.
They were certainly added rocket fuel to the campaign to close Rikers Island. I guess from my perspective having worked in this field now for a quarter of a century, we've only gotten to this point because the population of Rikers Island has gone from 22,000 people when I moved to New York City in the early 1990s, to in the neighborhood and even somewhat less than 9000 today.
You just couldn't, no matter how powerful the advocacy banging on the drum might've been in 1992, and it was nonexistent mostly from my perspective, you couldn't even have a conversation about closing Rikers Island, with not only the size of the population in jail at that point, but the size of the level disorder and lawlessness on the streets. From my perspective, the of closing Rikers Island is safe streets and reduced incarceration.
Yeah, I guess I do see it as a vindication of slow and steady wins the race, and that putting as many small Senatees on the board as possible will eventually get you to the brink of really significant change.
WATKINS: Your book is very concrete, it's very deliberately practical, but it also has this unexpectedly soft center where you say that all reformers need to approach what they're doing with a dose of love. I think you two in an earlier production even co-wrote a piece called, "Love is Almost All You Need." Quite seriously, what is the role of love in criminal justice reform?
BERMAN: It's funny that you spot light that, because it's something that I still feel slightly uncomfortable talking about in a public setting. I think that I tend to want to take an approach that is hyper rational and well argued I hope. I guess at the end of the day what I keep coming back to ...
I was spending some time at the Midtown Community Court today, is that no one changes their lives by themselves. That it takes a relationship with someone, and that someone could be a social worker, it could be a probation officer, it could be a parole officer, it could be a cop, it could be a judge, it could be a case manager, on and on.
I don't think there's any magic to who that person is, but there's gotta be a spark and a human connection between two people for someone's life to change. I think when I look at the work of the Center for Court Innovation over the past 20 plus years, one of the things that I'm proudest of, and I've seen it happen over and over again, is that we have facilitated those connections, and facilitated those sparks.
I like to think, and I'm sure there's all sorts of ways that we fall short of this Platonic ideal, but I like to think that our staffers go forth in a spirit of love to try to create those connections with defendants, with community members on their own, but more than that, try to be, this is not to think of love as a virus, but to spread that infection to court officers, to police officers, to prosecutors, to judges.
That, that can be contagious actually, and when I think we're at our best, it's not because we have forced people to behave our way, or we've legislated some grand idea. It's that we've increased the amount of love in the air, and that, that is at the end of the day all you need.
WATKINS: Well, I want to thank both you guys for joining me today. I've been speaking with Greg Berman, the Director here of the Center for Court Innovation, and Julian Adler, our Director of policy and research. Together they are the authors of, "Start Here: A Roadmap to Reducing Mass Incarceration," that's just been published by the New Press.
For more information about the book, please visit our website at courtinnovation.org, and this has been another episode of the New Thinking podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. Technical support provided by Bill Harkins, our theme music is by Michael Aaron at quivernyc.com. Please subscribe to our podcast if you haven't done so already. We've got a lot of exciting episodes coming up. I'm Matthew Watkins, thanks for listening.