This interview followed the presentation "Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better: Lessons From Community Courts" given as part of NIJ's Research for the Real World Seminar Series by Greg Berman, BA, Director, Center for Court Innovation.
NIJ Research for the Real World Seminar
Greg Berman, Director, Center for Court Innovation
Change doesn't come easy, particularly within an institution as large and complex as the criminal justice system. Greg Berman offers lessons from several efforts to make reform stick in criminal justice settings. In particular, he focuses on the development of community courts - experimental court projects that are attempting to reduce both crime and incarceration in dozens of cities across the U.S. and around the world. He also draws upon his recently-published book Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure (Urban Institute Press).
We were also able to capture an Interview Mr. Berman in which he discusses in four short segments:
Greg Berman We tend to live in this very reductive world, which I think is driven by the media in some respects and driven by the demands of elected officials, where we look at new programs, we look at criminal justice reforms, and we do tend to ask only a very simple basic reductive question, which is "Did this work or not? Did this reduce crime or not?" But I think there's a host of other things that we'd like to see the criminal justice system do. We'd like to see it be cost-effective, for example. We'd like to see it be efficient. We'd like to see it be fair. We'd like to see it treat defendants and victims with humanity and decency, and I think that in general, we need to move beyond this kind of pass/fail approach to evaluating criminal justice reform and ask these broader sets of questions if we're really going to develop a kind of nuanced understanding of the field.
And in particular, I think it's really important to kind of look at criminal justice experiments, and break down how they treat different populations. Sometimes an intervention, it looks like it's had no effect, but if you take a microscope to it, it's actually had an enormous effect for, say, high-risk population and a very poor effect with the low-risk population, and so we're only going to find those kinds of things out if we broaden the lens and ask questions beyond simply "Did this reduce crime or not?"
[End of video clip]
One of the projects that my organization is best known for is a project called the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which is a neighborhood-based court that's located in a very low income neighborhood in Brooklyn that's actually home to one of New York's oldest and largest public housing developments, and we created a neighborhood-based justice center that hears low-level cases originating from the neighborhood-misdemeanor cases primarily but also some low-level felonies. And what we're trying to do with Red Hook is really combine punishment and help, and so we're linking offenders to very visible community restitution projects, making them pay back the neighborhood that they've harmed with their criminal behavior. But we're also linking them to the kinds of social service interventions-job training, drug treatment, things like that—that, you know that, touchwood, might help them stop a life of kind of repeated criminal behavior.
Every couple of years we do a neighborhood survey where we go out and we knock on doors and we get hundreds of people to respond, and we ask them "How are you feeling about your neighborhood? How are you feeling about the quality of life in the community? How do you feel about the justice system?" And we did this neighborhood survey before we started, and what we found were shockingly low rates of approval for the justice system. The number of people who said that they approved of the performance of local courts was 12 percent. You know, I wasn't so naive to think that we were going to get, you know, massive levels of approval, but that strikes me as a catastrophic vote of no confidence in a very important democratic institution.
So fast forward to today, we repeat this as a survey every couple years, as I said. Today, the last time we did it last year, 94 percent of local residents approved of the performance of the Justice Center. That to me is an indication that we're making a difference in how people feel about justice and how people feel about government.
[End of video clip]
Somebody's going to ride into town, a sheriff is going to ride into town and is going to save us all, right? That there are these kind of magic heroic figures that are going to magically reduce crime, right? And we see that over and over again, whether it's a new police chief or a new elected DA or a mayor or even a charismatic judge. But I think that we kind of are highly susceptible to these figures, and in a way, the book was wanting to push back against the kind of overreliance on the charismatic individual who comes to town selling, sometimes selling magic beans, right? Again, just like the overreliance on charismatic figures, sometimes I think that the fight over ideas and over ideology obscures the realities of program implementation. And at the end of the day, if we want to change things, we want to reform the criminal justice system—which at some level I think all of us who do this business are interested in continuing to improve the criminal justice system—while it's important to talk about ideas, sometimes we shortchange thinking about program implementation.
And there's a great book, which is now a little long in the tooth, by a guy named Michael Lipsky called Street Level Bureaucracy that really speaks to this—that at the end of the day, if you're interested in changing the world, you've got to focus not so much on conversations at the mayoral level or the level of congress. You really have to focus on "What do judges do every day? What do police officers do every day? What do teachers, what do, you know, school superintendents do every day?" And in some small, modest way we wrote this book, my colleague Aubrey Fox and I, to try to focus a little bit more attention on program implementation rather than ideas.
[End of video clip]
You know, when times get tight there's this enormous tendency to kind of look at the kinds of things that NIJ does, or the kinds of things that my agency does, as luxuries, right? As something that can be tossed aside. And I think that one of the subtle things we're trying to do with this book is make the case that the criminal justice system really needs to invest more heavily in research and development, that research and development are not, in fact, luxuries and that when times are tough, you actually in some ways want to double down on research investments because that's when you really need to make the case for whatever initiative you're trying to promote based on hard data, and that's when you really want to go in and use data to shore up initiatives that are flagging. And so I think a subtle thing that we're trying to do with this book is make the case that criminal justice systems should do more research, not less.
[End of video clip]
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Date created: April 19, 2011