Q&A: Greg Berman


Q&A: Greg Berman

Q&A: Greg Berman

 This interview with Andrew Denney originally appeared in the New York Law Journal on October 23, 2015.

Like most big ideas, the Center for Court Innovation started small.

It began in 1993 with the formation of Midtown Community Court, which was created to address low-level offenses like prostitution and graffiti in the Times Square area. Greg Berman, now director of the center, was part of the court's initial planning effort.

Berman, 48, does not have a background in law or even criminal justice; he graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a degree in American Studies. But through a fellowship program that led him to work at the Fund for the City of New York, he met John Feinblatt, who was in the process of forming the Midtown Community Court.

"He made the argument that you could use the court as a jumping off point for any social issue," Berman said about Feinblatt.

In the beginning, community courts were seen as unconventional, but the Midtown court showed results: it not only helped to reduce crime in the area but also drove down incarceration rates. Its success led court administrators to support the center as a permanent engine for reform programs for the state's justice system.

On Monday, one of those programs, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, for which Acting Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Alex Calabrese serves as presiding judge, will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a gala to be held at Brooklyn Museum, located at 200 Eastern Parkway. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Stuart Gold, a retired Cravath, Swaine & Moore litigation partner, will be honored at the event, which begins at 5:30 p.m. and will feature Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson as a speaker.

Information about the event can be found on the center's website: www.courtinnovation.org/redhook15.

Q: How did you become involved with the Center for Court Innovation?

A: I was fortunate to be part of the founding team that helped to create the center. Our origins go back to the creation of the Midtown Community Court in the early 1990s. The director of that project was John Feinblatt and one of his many strengths was an eye for talent. He assembled a very strong supporting cast around him: Michele Sviridoff, Eric Lee, Amanda Burden, and, later, Alfred Siegel. We were an ambitious and entrepreneurial group. John initially hired me to be the point person for the planning of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, but my role evolved over time to include planning other projects like helping John draft the concept paper for what would become the Center for Court Innovation.

Q: What role does the center serve? Is it primarily a research organization?

A: The center has three principal areas of business: we perform original research, provide consulting services to justice reformers around the world and create operating programs that work to prevent crime, reduce the use of incarceration, and strengthen public confidence in justice. Some of our projects, like Bronx Community Solutions, which works with thousands of misdemeanants each year, are large. Others—like the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which provides alternatives to incarceration to a few dozen felony-level offenders each year—are small. Some projects work with juveniles and some work with adults. Some handle serious cases and some deal with petty offending. But the same values are present in all of our projects: a commitment to thoughtful planning and rigorous evaluation and a desire to push the justice system to be more effective and more humane.

Q: How does the Center decide what issues to take on?

A: I wish I could tell you that we had a patented, scientific process. The truth is that ideas come to us in many ways. Sometimes they bubble up from our staff on the ground and sometimes a partner agency like the Manhattan District Attorney's Office or the New York City Police Department or the court system will ask us to take on an issue. And sometimes we respond to the interests of a funder, such as the U.S. Department of Justice, that has issued a request for proposals. Not every idea has to originate with us. Some of our most interesting work has been attempting to adapt models that have worked in other places—such as drug court, Cure Violence and "call-ins" with parolees—to New York City.

Q: What is your relationship with the state court system?

A: One of our strengths as an agency is our partnership with the New York court system. We are not part of the court system; we are an independent non-profit. But we work quite closely with the court system, providing strategic advice, research assistance and training. And many of our operating programs are court-based initiatives that require the active support and endorsement of the court system. I think the leadership of the court system thinks of the center as a unique tool in their arsenal that they can use when they want to test new ideas and solve tricky problems.

Q: Since its growth from the Midtown Community Court, how has the scope of the center's mission changed?

A: The Midtown Community Court was focused on a specific problem in a single neighborhood: low-level crime in and around Times Square. But we quickly realized that some of the basic elements of the Midtown court—providing meaningful alternatives to incarceration, engaging the local community, investing in preventing crime—could be applied in other settings and adapted to other problems. The center has a very strong New York-centric identity; almost all of our operating programs are here in the city. But we have always had a desire to participate in the national conversation about justice reform as well. And, increasingly, we seek to work internationally as well, including helping to launch the Centre for Justice Innovation to promote change in the United Kingdom.

Q: Next week, the Red Hook Community Justice Center celebrates its 15th anniversary. Was that program a hard sell in the beginning?

A: Yes and no. Yes because we had very little in the way of a track record to build on; when we started planning Red Hook, the Midtown Community Court had only been open for a year and we had no reputation or connections in Brooklyn. We had to start from ground zero and confront all of the distrust and suspicion that any neighborhood would have for an organization it didn't know. But at the level of content, it was easy to sell the justice center model. There was a real hunger in southwest Brooklyn for something that would shake up the status quo of the justice system.

Q: What makes you proud of the Red Hook program?

A: So much. The Red Hook program has won national awards from organizations like the American Bar Association and has been the subject of a PBS documentary. It has been visited by thousands of important criminal justice officials, including the U.S. attorney general and England's minister of justice. Independent evaluators from the National Center for State Courts came in and documented that the justice center had helped to reduce both crime and incarceration while improving public attitudes toward justice. But what makes me most proud of the justice center is the way the place feels whenever I visit. There is such a wonderful spirit of creative problem solving in that building. I give enormous credit to Alex Calabrese, the center's presiding judge, for his willingness to work with us to foster that culture.

Q: How has the center evolved?

A: It is still a place focused on solving local problems, both before and after they reach court. The mission has changed very little, but the specific components are constantly changing in response to the issues of the day. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we made a deep investment in outreach to local residents to strengthen their preparation for future disasters. Recently, we have created a peacemaking program that draws on Native American traditions to resolve thorny disputes. These kinds of projects weren't on our radar screen at all when Red Hook started, but I think they are entirely consistent with the founding spirit of the place.

Q: What lessons does the justice center offer for other community programs?

A: It sounds incredibly simple, but I think the most important lesson is that how you treat people makes an enormous difference. From the start, Red Hook tried to treat each individual defendant, victim or member of the public with dignity and respect. And we have tried to communicate, as much as possible, using plain language rather than legalese or unintelligible acronyms. The research suggests that these kinds of efforts have helped to bolster the legitimacy of the justice system in the eyes of local residents.

Q: Are these kinds of programs accepted or do you still face opposition?

A: I think programs like Red Hook that have been shown to reduce the use of jail and enhance public trust in justice are precisely what the current moment demands in terms of criminal justice reform. Signs of growing interest in these kinds of ideas are all around us. For example, the MacArthur Foundation recently launched a $75 million initiative to reduce the use of jail in the United States that has attracted applications from hundreds of cities.

Q: The center has been working on establishing a community program in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. How will it compare to the Red Hook program?

A: Like Red Hook, the Brownsville program will be a neighborhood-based courthouse with a courtroom that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration that also features a broad range of youth development and crime prevention programs. But Brownsville is a different neighborhood than Red Hook, so we can't just repeat exactly what we did in Red Hook, however successful. That means doing more work that is explicitly focused on reducing community violence. That means a deeper focus on addressing conditions of disorder in the neighborhood that encourage criminal behavior. And that means offering a broader array of programs for local teens, creating positive pathways out of the justice system.

Q: Why has it taken so long to get going?

A: The project has the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, The New York Times editorial board, and a range of neighborhood voices, including the local community board. But it has yet to win the heart of the local council member (Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, a Democrat) whose support is crucial to winning approval by the full city council. But I remain optimistic.

Q: Are New York courts more innovative than their counterparts in other states?

A: I'm far from a neutral observer, but I think so. A lot of the credit goes to former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, who held that post for 15 years before retiring in 2008, and Lippman. I'm not sure the average person, or even the average lawyer, realizes how fortunate New York has been in terms of judicial leadership over the past two decades. We've had two chief judges who have chosen to define themselves as reformers. I'm proud that the Center for Court Innovation has played a small supporting role in helping them promote innovation in New York.

Read more.

  • New York
  • 520 8th Avenue
  • 18th Floor
  • New York, NY 10018
  • phone: 646.386.3100
  • Syracuse
  • 601 Tully Street
  • Syracuse, NY 13204
  • phone: 315.266.4330
  • London
  • Canterbury Court
    1-3 Brixton Road
  • London, SW9 6DE
  • phone: +44 2076.329.060