By Michael Zuckerman, J.D. ’17
Judge John Cratsley’s Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic hosted the Center for Court Innovation’s Adam Mansky this past Monday for a lunchtime conversation on the Center’s work to drive criminal justice reform in New York. Mansky, who serves as the Center’s director of operations, also led discussion in the clinic’s class component on Monday night.
The Center for Court Innovation is a nonprofit headquartered in New York City that seeks to reform local criminal justice systems so that they both treat defendants better and produce better social outcomes. To those ends, the Center both develops knowledge and put that knowledge into practice by launching innovative operating projects — including groundbreaking courts like the Red Hook Community Justice Center and programs like Newark Community Solutions — that model effective change.
The Center’s work, as Mansky explains, is based on two core ideas: First, that using community interventions other than jail are likely to increase public safety in lower-level cases. Second, that if defendants feel that they’ve been treated fairly — if their adjudication is procedurally just — they’ll be more likely to meet their obligations to the community going forward. A wide and growing body of empirical research, Mansky notes, supports both.
Mansky’s talk emphasized that the current “critical time in criminal justice” — with growing awareness of mass incarceration, racial inequities in sentencing, and police misconduct — has created “an opportunity to rethink how we do things.” And he noted that the system in New York City is beginning to respond: the use of stop-and-frisk is way down, nonjailable offenses that used to lead to arrest warrants when fines weren’t paid are now being shifted into civil territory, and a commission has been convened to explore closing the City’s infamous Riker’s Island.
Mansky praised the current progress but also questioned whether it contained enough of an “articulation” of what should replace our existing, flawed system. “We see triage, but not really a vision. No one is asking the bigger question: OK, so, what should the system look like?”
The Center is working hard to produce that kind of vision. Key to that effort are the Center’s pioneering courts, which, Mansky explained, provide “community-based interventions in lieu of incarceration and criminal conviction.” In Red Hook, for example, available programs range from trauma counseling and drug treatment to a Navajo peacemaking circle, community service, a youth court, and other forms of restorative practice. The Center has also spurred a police-and-prosecutor-led diversion program for first-time, 16-and-17-year-old offenders in a handful of police precincts — a program that is now ready to expand throughout Manhattan and eventually throughout the city. And they have launched a supervised-release program that allows several of their courts to interpose an alternative between money bail and personal-recognizance release.
Mansky spoke to a full seminar room that included participants in Judge Cratsley’s clinic, other HLS students, and members of the community. Judge Cratsley’s clinic places twenty-five HLS students, the largest group ever enrolled, in clinical internships with trial judges throughout the Massachusetts court system, including the Boston Municipal Court, the Massachusetts Superior Court, and U.S. District Court.
Mansky closed by emphasizing the tensions between accountability and humanity in criminal justice — twin goals that have both proved elusive for many local systems in recent years. “I’ve been to many community meetings where I’ve heard some people say, ‘Why are the police stopping my son?’” Mansky recalled. “But there are also a lot of people saying, ‘What are you going to do about this condition in my hall, or the dealers on the corner?’” The Center continues to work, Mansky said, to “figure out what’s a meaningful and proportionate response rather than just jumping to the most draconian response of incarceration.”