Joe Barrett joined the Center for Court Innovation four years ago as a planner on the criminal justice programs team. In this role, he supported the rollout of initiatives and drafted proposals for new ones. He is currently the deputy director of one of the projects he had a hand in proposing, Manhattan Justice Opportunities, an alternative sentencing program, where he and staff provide social services and supportive resources as effective alternatives to the traditional responses to crime.
Joe’s interest in criminal justice reform developed while he was in college. During a gap year following high school, he volunteered with an adult literacy program in Northern India. “I came out of that experience with a deep interest in adult education and working on issues at the grassroots level. I wanted to work with people directly impacted by those issues, to enact solutions that incorporated their vision of change.” His first year in college, he found an opportunity to tutor in high school equivalency classes in prison.
Joe describes himself as having been “woefully ignorant” of the racial disparities and other inequities in the justice system before that experience. But he started volunteering weekly, building relationships with the people he worked with, learning about their lives, what had led them to that moment, and their hopes for the future. “I wanted to identify small ways I could make an impact in these major issues, to be realistic about how I could contribute and not overestimate my own ability to effect change.” It was also important to him that he “reflect on ways it would be appropriate for me to contribute based on my background and skillset and the knowledge I would be bringing.” After college, Joe worked for the organization he had volunteered with, helping to transform it from an informal network of volunteers into a non-profit with full-time staff and programs in multiple states.
I was drawn to the Center because I was looking to continue direct service work and have an impact in the here and now but also looking to explore what a reconfigured justice system could look like. The Center is unique in its efforts to advance reform by working for change at both the individual and systemic levels. We’re providing direct services to people who are impacted by the justice system right now, while also working to reconfigure practices that will impact tens of thousands of people in the future.
Manhattan Justice Opportunities provides holistic community-based programming as an alternative to incarceration, fines, and convictions for hundreds of people charged with misdemeanor and felony offenses each year. Services range from connections to mental health, substance use, and primary healthcare services; to educational opportunities and job-readiness training; to restorative justice and civic engagement programming. Joe hopes that one day this work will no longer be conceived of as an alternative, but as “the most appropriate, most effective, and most thoughtful response. I want us to transition to a world where social services are the default, and incarceration, fines, and convictions are a last resort. ”
Courts don't often seek to understand individual life circumstances and the structural forces that contribute to someone being arrested. They do very little to address the root issues of what brings someone into contact with the justice system. Our programming provides a pathway for someone to get out of the justice system and engage in services that are more likely to be responsive to their needs and the challenges they’re facing.
What's transformative about Manhattan Justice Opportunities’ work, Joe says, is that there are no eligibility limitations, so long as the parties agree to the disposition. “Where other programs might limit alternative sentencing to specific categories—particular mental health diagnoses, only young people, only drug cases, etcetera—these alternative sentences are open to any and all participants,” he says. “In that way, it escapes the binds of previous specialized models. And that’s a necessary step toward the paradigm shift of making services, and not incarceration, the default response.”
Joe has learned a number of lessons from his experience helping start a new project. “Get as much done as you can in the planning stage, but also realize that you just need to start and rework things once you’re up and running. Be prepared to go back to the drawing board regularly.” Adding to the challenge was that Manhattan Justice Opportunities launched just five weeks before the pandemic hit. “We had to pivot to create an entirely different entity than we planned for. For the past two years, the team has been working to problem-solve remote participant engagement, while continuing to serve over a thousand people a year. We designed a new model, and created flexibility of access that we didn’t have before.”
I think the unique genius of the Center’s work lies in our capacity to act as a convener and hub for new ideas. We’re building relationships with both system and community actors and bringing these worlds together.
Outside of work Joe loves soccer, hiking, and traveling. He also does a brief barefoot run in the snow during the first snowfall every year.