Crime and the Courts: The Future of Criminal Justice in the City

Greg Berman is the director and co-founder of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City based policy research center that helps the justice system aid victims, reduce crime, strengthen neighborhoods, and improve public trust in justice. Berman has helped guide the organization from start-up to an annual budget of more than $17 million. He is the co-author of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure (Urban Institute Press, 2010) and Good Courts: The Case for Problem-Solving Justice (The New Press, 2005).

Greg Berman is the director and co-founder of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City-based policy research center that helps the justice system aid victims, reduce crime, strengthen neighborhoods, and improve public trust in justice. Berman has helped guide the organization from start-up to an annual budget of more than $17 million. He is the co-author of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform: Learning from Failure (Urban Institute Press, 2010) and Good Courts: The Case for Problem-Solving Justice (The New Press, 2005).

This piece, first published on February 27, 2012, is being republished as part of the Chicago Policy Review‘s 20th Anniversary Series. Please visit us here to learn more about the series from our Executive Editors.

Why should we be concerned about effective and efficient criminal justice and court systems? How do they improve lives and communities? 

The criminal justice system is one of our most important democratic institutions. An effective criminal justice system (and when we talk about the system, we’re really talking about many agencies–police, probation, courts, prosecutors, defenders, corrections, pre-trial services, etc) is important for two main reasons.

One, maintaining law and order and a sense of fairness is an essential building block for everything else society wants to do. Two, about every problem you’d ever want to address—race, poverty, homeless, addiction, mental illness—is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. This is one of the key underlying insights of The Center for Court Innovation: you can use the criminal justice process as a jumping off point for addressing a lot of social issues. This is also one of the main things that motivates me to do this work.

Some groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, argue that social services, not courts, should address these underlying social problems. How do you respond?

I think it’s a false choice. Nothing that we do suggests that one shouldn’t invest in schools, community centers, or early childhood education. Of course we need those things. Anybody that came to you and said you should put all of your eggs in the criminal justice system to address deep-rooted social problems is crazy.

Having said that, the reality is that every day these problems are flooding into the courts. We’ve written about it extensively – while the public often thinks that the courts are inundated with really serious cases, the truth is that courts are overwhelmed by minor offenses, including non-violent drug cases involving addicts and mentally ill individuals.

What we are trying to do at the Center for Court Innovation is to acknowledge this reality and to address what we see as a mismatch between the court’s business and the tools available to the courts to execute that business. We are trying to give courts tools to match their caseload. I would argue that to not do that—for the courts to say, essentially, “Not my problem,”—is non-sensical. It would be an abdication of the responsibility that the justice system has to society.

 You work to help other jurisdictions (in the US and internationally) to adopt the Center’s successful approaches. Do you find that crime and justice issues translate across communities and countries?

Yes and no. There’s no denying that there are some regional differences. Crystal meth is prevalent in some places and not others; juvenile gangs are more problematic in some places than others. But certain problems know no boundaries: addiction, using incarceration as a default setting, declining trust and confidence in justice. These are issues that resonate just about everywhere.

As a New York-based agency, we have to acknowledge that New York is viewed as an exceptional place. When we work with folks in other places, we take great pains to say, “Come to New York, look at what we’re doing, but we’re not here to sell you a model. We’re here to introduce you to some ideas.” We have a project called the Red Hook Community Justice Center that’s had some positive results in Brooklyn. But our message is not that you have to replicate Red Hook. As the singer Billy Bragg says, “You can borrow ideas, but you can’t borrow situations.” What’s right for Red Hook, is not necessarily right for the South Side of Chicago, let alone a city half-way around the world. But I believe that the underlying ideas can be adapted and applied quite broadly. 

What are your thoughts on evidence-based policy making? Do you see a willingness to adopt an empirically driven approach among policy makers?

We’ve started to see a major shift in attitudes toward using evidence to make policy decisions. The conversations today are very different than what was taking place twenty years ago. Lots of people deserve credit for this–the current Justice Department, and Laurie Robinson, in particular.

You can no longer walk up to an elected official and just say, “Here’s something that sounds good.” You need some data now. In general, people are smarter about asking for the evidence behind certain assertions.

Having said that, I do think there remains an enormous gulf between researchers and public officials and that there’s a real need for institutions like the Center for Court Innovation, Chicago Appleseed, the Vera Institute, and other groups that can interpret and translate current research. These organizations can play an interstitial role between the researchers and the policy makers, helping to bridge what can be an enormous gap.

How do you view the future of criminal justice policy in the U.S.?

I’m pretty optimistic, actually. Our cities are demonstrably safer than they were twenty years ago. When I moved to New York, the city was losing people to the suburbs. Now people want to live in NYC. That wouldn’t happen if this place felt the way it did in the 70’s and 80’s.

The last twenty years have been an amazingly innovative time in criminal justice. There’s CompStat, community policing, HOPE, and more. Crime used to be a top-three issue in national elections, but it’s much lower now, which takes some of the pressure off. I think that’s a good thing: when the temperature of the subject goes down, people can make cooler, more rational decisions.

I do worry that the mood can change. For too long, crime policy got made on the backs of really horrible policies. “Hard cases make bad law” has always been true, and that tempers my optimism about the future. Because things can change very quickly. But right now, I’m optimistic.

Featured photo: cc/(Phil Roeder)

kwelter@uchicago.edu'
Katy Welter
Katy Welter is the Director of Business Development for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School. She has a JD from the University of Chicago Law School and a BA in Philosophy and English from DePauw University. Katy is an attorney with Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, where she researches and advocates for policy reforms in criminal justice and financial access issues, and she also blogs at her personal site, www.rosporkad.com.

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