For many, 2021 felt like a rerun of 2020. The pandemic was still with us. Gun violence was again on the rise. Systemic racial inequities that spawned protests in 2020 were still in place. And the economic recovery continued at an uneven pace.
There is no question that the challenges of 2021 were similar to ones we faced in 2020. But it’s important to note there was also progress. Vaccines saved lives, eviction moratoriums and rental assistance helped people stay in their homes, virtual technology allowed many businesses and key systems (such as courts) to function, and steps were taken to identify and begin to address systemic racism in the justice system and elsewhere.
With the Center for Court Innovation honoring its 25th anniversary, I have been thinking a lot about progress—particularly, how to define and measure it. While some of our goals at the Center—such as fairness—can be hard to quantify, many measures of progress are more concrete, such as the way we have contributed meaningful improvements to peoples’ lives and communities.
This annual report is structured around three areas in which the Center has made progress both inside and outside the justice system. First, we look at some of the ways we’ve influenced public policy, both in 2021 and over our history. Then, we highlight some of the programs we’ve put in place that address both acute (such as COVID-19) and long-term (such as gun violence) challenges. In the next section, we discuss how we’re helping communities access power and resources to advocate for themselves. In the final section, we look ahead to areas where more progress is planned.
We have spent the last quarter century developing and running dozens of unique programs; but these programs aren’t ends in themselves. They provide opportunities to find new solutions, offering proof of concept by demonstrating what works. When our research team validates a successful approach, we translate that success into policy recommendations and lessons that we share with justice reformers across the country and around the world.
Our policy-in-action approach to reform has allowed us to advance many important changes, from increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration to legislative milestones like the repeal of New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, the change from 16 to 18 in the age of criminal responsibility, and the adoption of bail reform.
To advance one of our top priorities—reducing the use of prison and jail—we provided the staffing and data for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which published the detailed plan to close the jails on Rikers Island by 2027. We have since helped the city safely reduce its use of incarceration to levels not seen in decades and last year published, with the Commission, concrete, data-driven strategies to produce sizable jail reductions while prioritizing public safety. We have also made a deep investment in “going upstream,” seeking to improve safety and lessen the harms of justice system involvement by preventing crime through community-based approaches. After advocating upstream approaches for years, we were delighted to see candidate Eric Adams embrace the approach and, as our new mayor, incorporate upstream strategies into his administration’s policies.
As things started to open up in the spring (before they started to close down again in early winter), I traveled from Syracuse, N.Y., to Newark, N.J., and to all five boroughs to witness our programs in action. Everywhere I went, I was reminded that our most important resource is our staff. They are each of them leaders, guided by our values, bringing a diversity of experiences and skills to some of society’s biggest challenges. We started publishing “Changemakers in Action” profiles—and plan to continue them until our 25th anniversary benefit in May 2022—to celebrate our staff’s dedication and hard work. Looking ahead, our year-old People and Culture Department is focusing on integrating new strategies for diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and anti-racist practices into our organizational culture and providing all staff with opportunities to grow skills and advance professionally. Our vision is to weave racial justice into every aspect of our work and ensure we practice what we preach, advancing equity for our staff and the communities we serve.
Progress often comes slowly, especially in the justice field, but our experience over 25 years shows that with perseverance, collaboration, and data-driven and people-centered approaches, we can make huge strides.
Wishing you a safe, healthy, and productive year,
INVESTING IN LASTING CHANGE
The Center for Court Innovation influences policy by demonstrating what works through more than two dozen direct-service programs, making recommendations based on the results of our data-driven research, and advising practitioners in New York, across the country, and around the world.
One of our most important policy priorities is reducing the use of incarceration. (See the accompanying “25 Years of Making Incarceration a Last Resort.”) Our advocacy in this area extends across the country. We are in our sixth year of partnering with the MacArthur Safety & Justice Challenge to assist Los Angeles County to transform their criminal justice system using bail reform, pretrial release, and alternatives to incarceration. In response to a growing mental health crisis in their jail system, Los Angeles County has adopted a “care first, jails last” approach with the help of Center staff, investing in mental health and substance use treatment and building a community-based system of care. Since March, the Center has helped the county launch three diversion programs to keep people out of jail and in their communities. With support from the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative, the Center has helped ensure these programs are supported by data and promote racial equity.
Investing in Restorative Justice
The Center has worked with the New York City Department of Education to reduce the use of punitive and exclusionary school discipline and address inequities in discipline. To explore more effective and humane alternatives, the Center collaborated with five Brooklyn public high schools to create restorative justice programming. Over the course of three years, Center staff ran relationship-building circles, mediations, and community-building activities, while our researchers documented implementation and evaluated program impact. In 2021, we published an in-depth look at this work to guide educators, students, and community members around the country seeking to build positive connections in their school communities.
Building Strong Families
We have worked closely with partners in and outside the justice system to reshape policies affecting court-involved families and their children with the goal of minimizing the harms of justice involvement and improving outcomes.
This year we expanded our efforts to support young children and their families who are in New York City Family Court due to allegations of abuse or neglect. Our Strong Starts Court Initiative, which operates in the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, and expanded to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Westchester County in 2021, encourages healthy attachment between young children and their caregivers and seeks to reunify children with their parents when safely possible. The initiative also promotes a more collaborative approach in court, educating judges, lawyers, and caregivers about early childhood mental health and building a network of community-based services to minimize trauma and provide people with a supportive foundation to build their families.
In 2021, we published an evaluation of the initiative, Helping the Youngest Start Life Strong: Families in our Strong Starts Court Initiative, which found that participating families have fewer subsequent child welfare petitions than families not receiving enhanced support. The program also improved professional practice among judges and attorneys and enhanced family well-being across several areas, including strengthened relationships and increased knowledge about early childhood.
We’ve also introduced new tools to enhance court responses to non-custodial parents who have fallen behind in child support. Our Parent Support Program helps them address barriers to meeting child support, while fostering stronger relationships between parent and child. Launched in Syracuse in 2010, we’ve since brought the program to all boroughs in New York City. Since 2010, we’ve worked with over 1,200 parents.
When I first began the program, I was uncertain of what to expect—and, quite frankly, a little scared. But from day one, I discovered that the court was heavily invested in seeing noncustodial parents such as myself succeed and contribute to a better life for our children.
– GRADUATE, Parent Support Program, Kings County
TAKING A FLEXIBLE APPROACH TO PROBLEM SOLVING
The Center for Court Innovation is an expert at planning new initiatives to address challenges in both government and communities. The process of changing systems often takes many years, requiring buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders and the development of data-informed policies to promote the desired outcomes. But circumstances can sometimes require an immediate response. The Center takes a flexible approach to problem-solving, ready to respond quickly to urgent needs as they arise while at the same time engaging in an inclusive planning process to implement lasting solutions. Some examples of both short- and long-term strategies follow.
Responding to COVID-19
As the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic entered their second year, systemic concerns and immediate needs converged as many confronted housing and food insecurity while also striving to avoid infection.
We worked closely with community partners to get emergency supplies where they were needed to help keep clients safe and address food insecurity. For instance, with help from Wegman’s grocery store, we distributed over 750 care boxes throughout Brooklyn filled with shelf-stable food items, health and hygiene products, and personal protective equipment; and in the South Bronx, we distributed over 10,000 boxes of face masks and hand sanitizer.
We also worked with partners to address the need for safe, stable housing. In Harlem, for example, we partnered with Chase Bank to set up a walk-in community-based housing assistance program. Community members received help paying rent arrears, addressing repair issues, and accessing government benefits. In Brooklyn, we went door-to-door in the Red Hook Houses to share information and resources with tenants.
As funds became available to renters struggling to cover back-rent, we assisted tenants in need with applications for the New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program. In Syracuse, N.Y., we held Kitchen Table Talks, which bring community members together in a resident’s home for informal conversations to identify challenges—like creating stable housing for everyone—and how to address them.
In New Jersey, we partnered with over 20 community organizations to create pop-up navigation centers offering information to address a range of issues. Housing was the single biggest concern, and we provided attendees with information about available resources.
Keeping People off Rikers
Another crisis we responded to was the tragedy unfolding at New York City’s Rikers Island jail facility. In 2021, deaths reached their highest level in eight years against a backdrop of a rising overall population and reports of violent, chaotic, and life-threatening conditions.
We mobilized quickly in response, working on multiple fronts to keep more people from going to Rikers. In particular, we urged the city to send more people into the Rikers Early Release program, which had proven effective at the start of the pandemic, and for the courts to make more use of Supervised Release and other proven alternatives to jail, such as our Felony Alternative to Incarceration court in Manhattan. We also offered solutions to the case processing delays that keep many New Yorkers languishing in jail, and through our research, called attention in the media to the contributions of unaffordable bail and pretrial decision-making to the rising population at Rikers.
From The New Yorker: What Responsibility Do Courts Bear for the Crisis at Rikers Island?
Reaching the Unhoused
As more people found themselves without homes and living on the streets, we partnered with the Times Square Alliance, Breaking Ground, and Fountain House to fund and pilot a new program called Community First, which focuses on building long-term, trusting relationships with unhoused individuals living in and around Times Square. The goal was to model a program that provides support and services to prevent individuals from coming into contact with police or the justice system.
The initiative, which ran from January to June, reached hundreds of clients and proved so successful that New York City agreed to fund the program. The new funding allowed us over the last six months of 2021 to hire a team of outreach workers who have had with personal experience with the justice system, homelessness, mental health challenges, substance use disorder, or poverty. Their lived experiences have allowed us to build a team of “navigators” uniquely able to build trusting relationships with our most vulnerable community members. Over the course of the year, our navigators connected over 500 interactions with unhoused individuals.
From the New York Times:
New York Is Pushing Homeless People Off the Streets. Where Will They Go?
From the Los Angeles Times:
In Redondo Beach, it’s homeless court alfresco—with love
Enhancing Problem-Solving Courts
Since its founding, the Center for Court Innovation has promoted the development of problem-solving courts as humane and smarter alternatives to conventional case processing. Since launching the Midtown Community Court, which was the nation’s first community court, the Center has helped launch domestic violence courts, mental health courts, and other problem-solving courts in New York and across the U.S.
In 2021, we continued our long-term support of problem-solving models. With funding from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, we worked with jurisdictions across the country to create new or enhance existing community courts, helping them focus particularly on housing, access to justice, and alternatives to incarceration.
We also helped Ohio, New York, and Oregon identify and address racial disparities in their drug treatment courts and published a groundbreaking publication on ways for opioid courts and other drug treatment courts to improve access to medication for opioid use disorder.
New Approaches to Gun Violence
Since becoming the first organization to implement the Cure Violence model in New York City in 2011, the Center has been actively involved in responding to and preventing gun violence.
In recent years, we’ve expanded our work by launching new ways to apply a public health lens to prevent and respond to gun violence. In 2019, we started the RISE (Reimagining Intimacy through Social Engagement) Project, which takes a holistic approach—building gun violence prevention organizations capacity, working with individuals causing harm, and engaging communities to change norms—to address the intersection of intimate partner violence and gun violence.
In 2021, we expanded the Insight Initiative to additional NYC neighborhoods. Launched in 2015, Insight offers alternatives to incarceration for young people ages 15 to 24 with a focus on youth with gun and other serious felony charges. Insight centers accountability, healing, and redefinition of possibility for participants that have been limited by negative narratives. The neighborhood-centric, localized model incorporates transformational relationships, restorative justice, access to opportunity, and youth-led community investment to provide youth the structure and support they need to take accountability for their actions, address the root causes of their justice system involvement, and move towards positive futures.
We also assisted five organizations looking to engage in anti-gun violence work through our Brownsville Consortium, sharing the knowledge we’ve gained collaborating with communities on a public health approach to gun violence. Our outreach workers continued engaging with community members to change norms around dealing with conflict while our Men’s Empowerment Program and Make It Happen provided therapeutic interventions to young men impacted by violence.
An integral part of our approach is working closely with those most impacted by gun violence and listening and learning about their needs. A recent focus has been bridging the gap between generations to ensure everyone of all ages are involved in fostering vibrant neighborhoods.
From Full Frontal:
Gun control is a local issue
Strengthening Responses to Domestic Violence
For more than two decades, the Center has worked across the country to strengthen court and community responses to domestic violence. In 2021, we launched DV RISC (Domestic Violence Resource for Increasing Safety and Connection), a survivor-centered initiative that includes a new website with resources and support for those working to reduce and prevent homicide in intimate partner cases. An advisory board of survivors of intimate partner violence offers input and guidance to center the voices of those with lived experience of domestic violence. Working alongside multidisciplinary teams that include justice system stakeholders and victim advocates, we have created a centralized resource for others to access tools, training, and subject matter experts to help identify and work with people experiencing intimate partner violence.
Removing Barriers to Reintegration in Indian Country
Our Tribal Justice team worked with stakeholders in Indian Country and Bureau of Justice Assistance to create a toolkit designed to help tribal justice practitioners develop and improve reentry programming for American Indians and Alaska natives returning from jail or prison. American Indians and Alaska Natives are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates across the country, often in facilities that are far from their communities and lack culturally appropriate services. When they return to their communities, they face numerous challenges like finding housing, employment, and supportive services that can help them thrive.
Reentry programs offer structure, services, and supervision to help prevent reoffending. By removing barriers to successful reintegration and offering support, they can improve public safety and reduce recidivism.
Learn more about our work with Indigenous and Native communities at tribaljustice.org.
LETTING COMMUNITIES LEAD
At the Center, we talk about “co-creating” with those we serve. In practice, this means letting residents take the lead while we provide the opportunity to think creatively, work collaboratively with government and community partners, and implement community-based solutions.
Community members have always been and will continue to be essential partners; they are the experts on their own neighborhoods, with a fundamental understanding of what needs to happen to achieve safety. Reflecting the importance of the community in our work, we kicked off our 25th anniversary celebration with a panel on community-led justice in May.
Empowering Residents in Brownsville, Brooklyn
In 2011, we launched the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which has become a national model for creating justice from the ground up. The Justice Center, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2021, embodies the Center’s belief that community residents are the experts who understand what their neighborhoods need to achieve the prerequisites to community safety—e.g. education, economic mobility, quality housing, mental health supports, safe public spaces, trust in one’s neighbors.
The Justice Center seeks to provide residents with the space and opportunity to think creatively and collaboratively about what constitutes true safety for themselves, their families and their neighbors, and the resources to implement and iterate on community-based solutions.
We believe community justice can and must meet new challenges and embody the values that animate justice reform today, values that include shrinking the footprint of the justice system by diverting more cases to community-based solutions, empowering residents to co-create justice on their own terms, and advancing racial equity in a system that continues to disproportionately impact the lives of people of color.
Hearing Directly from Residents in Queens
Before going into a new community, it's important to check our assumptions about what we think is best for the residents. What has worked in some neighborhoods might not work in others.
In 2021, we began a needs assessment in the Rockaways in Queens. Through focus groups and community forums, we are speaking directly to young people ages 14-24 about safety and justice—what it is, how best to create it, and what programs would help bring it about in their specific community. This research is helping us reframe all our work in Queens, which began in 2007 as part of a citywide initiative to reduce the use of juvenile detention. Over time, our work in Queens has grown to reach youth both inside and outside the system, providing leadership training and other opportunities. In 2021, we changed the name of the Queens Community Youth Center to the Queens Community Justice Center when we began working to keep people of all ages from across the borough out of jail and in their communities.
Empowering Residents of Public Housing
In our work in public housing across New York City, we engage directly with residents and give decision-making power to the people. We recruit and organize leadership teams who propose solutions to challenges and learn how to access the resources needed to carry them out. This year as a part of the NeighborhoodStat citywide participatory decision-making process, almost 10,000 New York City Housing Authority residents voted on how to spend $30,000 in each of the 15 developments that are part of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety to improve safety and well-being in their community.
“Residents have told us many times that this is such an effective way to get their voices out there,” says Josh from our Neighborhood Safety Initiatives team in Brooklyn. “Instead of having city agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations take over this space, they actually get to have that power." In partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, we have supported communities in defining what safety means and direct the spending of over $500,000 annually in funds from the Mayor’s Office to transform public spaces and design new social programs.
The Center’s investment in eviction prevention and housing stability builds on our experiences supporting two neighborhood housing courts—one in Harlem and another in Red Hook, Brooklyn—and running three Housing Resource Centers.
Fostering Youth Leaders
After 17 years of supporting youth advocacy by training teens to study public policy issues affecting young people, our Youth Justice Board became the Youth Action Institute, changing both its name and its approach. The Institute will work with young people ages 16-21 and focus on multiple youth-determined topics, rather than one issue a year as the Board had done.
The Center also runs Youth Impact, which engages youth in New York City and Newark, N.J., to become transformative leaders by facilitating peer diversion programs, implementing community projects, and taking actions to address inequity in their communities and the factors that lead to youth involvement in the criminal legal system. In 2021, over 180 young people participated in Youth Impact.
One of the best way to transform the justice system is to reduce the need for it. That is why we’ve built programs like Legal Hand, which provides legal information about everything from housing to immigration to help people solve problems before they have a need for court, and Project Reset, which allows people facing charges for low-level offenses to avoid permanent criminal records while still holding them accountable.
It is also why in the coming year, we’re investing more deeply than ever in programs that go upstream—that focus on preventing crime, including gun violence, and creating opportunities so that fewer people come into contact with the system in the first place. Among the new initiatives we’re growing in 2022, is the Bronx Community Justice Center will work to create a safer, more equitable neighborhood through community-driven public safety initiatives, youth opportunity, and economic mobility efforts focused in the South Bronx.
We’re also going to open an office in the Rockaways neighborhood, which is located on a peninsula with limited access to services. The new office will allow our Queens Community Justice Center to offer services to everyone in the borough of more than 2 million. The Justice Center’s goal is to keep people of all ages out of jail and safely in their communities. Services at our Queens offices will include mental health and substance use treatment, vocational and educational supports, and trauma-informed individual and group counseling, with the goal of keeping 340 people from jail in the first two years.
We will also move ahead with Moving Justice Forward, a groundbreaking project in partnership with the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice. Together, we plan to create a blueprint for promoting equity, transparency, and fairness in prosecution. Funded by The Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation, this project is the first of its kind in the country and may offer a nationwide template.
We’re also investing in strengthening and expanding successful programs in civil court that have increased access and fairness. For instance, we plan in the coming year to build more capacity for both Strong Starts Court Innovative and Parent Support Program. Among other things, we plan to diversify sources of funding for Strong Starts in order to replicate the model throughout the State.