Two criminal justice experts have started a new journal focusing on strategies for achieving effective and sustainable urban public safety strategies.
Elizabeth Glazer, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice NYC and Greg Berman, former executive director of the Center for Court Innovation, launched “Vital City” on Thursday. The online journal, which also includes a subscriber newsletter, debuted with insights and recommendations on gun violence reduction from several experts on the topic.
Glazer serves as Vital City’s founder while Berman is the journal’s founding editor. Berman, the distinguished fellow of practice at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, also serves as chair of the New York Nonprofit Media Advisory Board.
NYN Media caught up with Glazer and Berman to discuss how they became interested in criminal justice, how Vital City came about, and what their intentions are for the journal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Please talk about your background and interest in criminal justice.
Glazer: Shortly after law school, I joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York, and at that time murders in New York City were at their height. There were over 2,200. Just to give some context, just a few years ago there were about 300. They're now at about 450. It was a very interesting time in the city. It was a very hard time in the city. I eventually became head of the organized crime section, which had been very active with La Cosa Nostra. I had brought some really legendary cases. But the violence in the city was being driven in really very few neighborhoods and by very few people. We started to work on the groups that were driving the shootings and the murders in a pretty focused way that the feds had not before. That was also accompanied by a lot of neighborhood work, like what do you do after you go in and arrest people who have been shooting and murdering? And it always sort of struck me that we would have these initiatives with cool names, but then what? What would happen in the neighborhood? What else could be built? Ultimately I went and worked for Andrew Cuomo when he was attorney general as counsel to him, and then when he became governor, I became the deputy secretary for public safety. I oversaw public safety agencies – corrections, state police. Then when Bill de Blasio became mayor, I came over to the city and became the director of the Office of Criminal Justice where there was really a focus on two things. One was reducing the Rikers population safely. Within those few words is bound up 6,000 different efforts, because who's in Rikers and how long they stay has to do with the decisions of many, many other players in the criminal justice system and outside. The second thing I was very focused on was how you reduce crime without the hand of the state, without police and the criminal justice system, because there were, to me, evident harms that came with the very heavy reliance on policing and criminal justice, even though I think it has a role. There were many other ways to create safety that could build and support neighborhoods and New Yorkers. So, I became very focused on what those ways were.
Berman: Unlike Liz, I spent my entire career outside the criminal justice system in the progressive nonprofit sector. And the bulk of that was spent helping to found, build and lead the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation, which over the past 25 years has played a role, along with lots of other great nonprofits in New York, in helping to build a network of very vibrant alternatives to incarceration programs in New York City. New York is arguably the capital of alternatives to incarceration in the country, if not the world. We played a role in building a number of crime prevention programs in various neighborhoods, like Crown Heights, Mott Haven and others. My professional life was, in many respects, predicated on a critique of the criminal justice system. Two projects that the Center for Court Innovation played a big role in creating were the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Brownsville Community Justice Center. These are two projects that I played a role in developing that I feel just incredibly proud of. While they both had a connection to the formal justice system, so much of the work that felt best – and that I think was at the end of the day transformative for those neighborhoods – occurred outside of the box of the justice system. We were doing community service programs, youth development programs and neighborhood beautification work. We were trying to reactivate public spaces. And in all those ways, we were trying to activate neighborhood voices, neighborhood players, to try to promote safety without relying on the formal apparatus of arrest, prosecution, incarceration. It's not that those things don't have a place in ensuring safety. I think these other things are capable of producing safety without some of the harms that arrest, prosecution and incarceration have been shown to do. Both Liz and I have come to the same conclusion that there's a need for more of that in New York City and arguably around the world as well.
Please define criminal justice reform from each of your perspectives.
Glazer: I think those are words that get filled up with whatever meaning the speaker wants, and that's the difficulty. Reform to some can feel like something that's not enough, and to others, feels like it's eroding the foundation of what a whole group feels is the foundation of safety. To me, it centers us in the wrong place. For me, the question is, how do we create safety? We have focused and defaulted to the police and the criminal justice system as the way we create safety. But that's come with some harms also and perhaps more importantly, there's so many other things that create safety that are not within the province of the criminal justice system. Lighting city streets, we know, reduces night time felony crime by 30%. Greening lots also has a remarkable effect on violent crime. Summer youth employment, the same thing. Over and over again, we have excellent evidence that these are the kinds of things that are not just long term, not just prevention later, but for right now are a powerful way for New Yorkers to have a safer city. My focus has really been less on the sort of 10% that's criminal justice-related and more on how do we have a 100% strategy that integrates all these civic services that we know, if put together in a laser-like way, could have an immediate and long term impact on safety.
Berman: The issue for me is not more or less reform. It is, are we doing the right reforms or not? And are the reforms based on evidence. What we've learned from experience, is it good practice or not?
Please discuss how effective criminal justice reforms have been and also talk about the impediments:
Berman: I think that we've come enormously far in terms of criminal justice reform in New York City. One of Liz’s signature accomplishments at the city was that she was in charge of safely reducing the jail population to get us to the point where we can realistically talk about closing Rikers Island. That is not small change. That is a significant reform of the system. New York City, I think in many respects, is a model of criminal justice reform for the country. I don't want to oversell it, because there's still lots left to be done. For me, one of the things that feels like an impediment is this social media era. Crime and justice has become a very hot political issue in New York City in a way that it wasn't a few years ago. I find a lot of the debate to be clustering to the extremes. We have some people saying we need to send in the troops to reclaim our streets. Then you have people literally arguing that we shouldn't have any prisons and we should have no police. I guess I find both of those positions to be untenable positions and not productive for meaningful, substantive improvements to the system. I would say our political climate is a core obstacle, from my perspective.
Glazer: Part of it is that there does appear to be this polarization, an increasing hardening and sharpening of positions between all of the left and the right. There seems to be very little space in between there to figure out what the solutions should be, because we seem to have backed into these sort of ideological positions. I actually think that if we were to look at some of the things that have worked in some of the conditions that are on the ground, and we work to bring to bare – even in pandemic economics – the massive resources of the government to both amplify some of the things that have worked in the past and to try some new things and integrate them, we could find our way through what seems to be a kind of a political stalemate.
That's really kind of what's animating us.
What can readers expect of Vital City?
Glazer: What Vital City is dedicated to, is to try and bring the best ideas, whether it's from government or from neighborhoods or from academia, and to translate them in a way that policymakers can use and to marry that to a really sharp look at what the facts are telling us on the ground is going on, in a way that anyone could understand. That's sort of what we're about. The journal is sort of the stake in the ground. We anticipate that there will be other kinds of projects and efforts that are a little bit more multimedia and that try to engage with the world more to ensure that we're getting the best ideas across an array of topics, and that we have the most robust network to get those ideas back out to people who can implement them.
Berman: In all due modesty, we've put together what I think is fair to call an A list roster of contributors who include, a healthy dose of academics, criminologists, sociologists and legal scholars, including people with direct experience, in the criminal justice system. Practitioners like Eric Gonzalez, who's written a piece alongside an activist in Brownsville named Cyrus Smith. That’s one of the things that we're trying to do with Vital City, to send a pluralist message. I don't agree with every one of our contributors. I’m not sure that all the contributors agree with each other. They're not all marching in lockstep saying the exact same thing. One of the things that they have in common is that they're all deeply grounded in either research or theory, for direct practical experience with crime in the criminal justice system. They all are taking a really hard look at the facts. That includes some facts that sometimes, at least in the progressive nonprofit network, are hard to articulate. Morgan Williams, one of our contributors, writes a piece and a big chunk of it is devoted to documenting that policing does make a difference actually. Good policing can reduce crime. That's something that's contested by lots of activist networks. I think it's important to articulate the facts of the matter. One of the most important pieces to me is a piece by two great scholars, Anna Harvey and Jennifer Doleac, who really cataloged the evidence for what they call “civic goods” or “civic strengths,” that investments in some of the things that Liz articulated, things like better lighting, things like cognitive behavioral therapy, things like preventing foreclosures can actually have a real world crime reduction impact. It's not just saying, “oh, we should invest more money in the community to address root causes.” They're documenting real life impacts from discrete interventions. We have a diverse set of contributors, that again are not all saying the exact same thing, but they are all offering a provocative interest.
I would add that Liz and I have known each other for more than two decades and I've always admired Liz as a writer. The written word is something that I think both Liz and I have always treasured in our professional lives. So I think at various points, as our trajectories wandered over the course of two decades, we would come together and have lunch and we'd say, “Hey, wouldn't it be fun to write together, or do something with the written word.” While we weren't talking about Vital City 20 years ago, this has been a journey two decades in the making.