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A Public Health Response to Violence: An Interview With Courtney Bryan

Courtney Bryan is the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City-based nonprofit that pilots innovative programs, conducts original research, and provides expert assistance to justice reformers to create a fair, effective, and humane justice system. Over the course of more than a decade at the Center, Bryan has served as the coordinator for domestic violence programs and the director of the Midtown Community Court. She also served as staff director for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, which successfully argued for closing the jails on Rikers Island. 

Hai Ning Ng: Many cities, including New York City, have seen a seeming spike in violent crime this year. Why might that be happening, and what can we do about it? 

Courtney Bryan: As you said, it’s happening here in New York and also across the country. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened at the same time as the pandemic. Over the last several years, crime in the United States—including violent crime—has been going down. In New York City, we’ve seen a decline in incarceration as well. But with Covid-19, every city is experiencing a disruption to its social safety net. The pandemic is a significant driver of economic disruption, of disruption to education and schooling, and access to food and other basic essentials. The timing of this spike in crime tells me that the pandemic has to be an underlying factor. 

What we can do about it is, again, to first recognize the disruption to education, employment, social cohesion, and community that people have experienced. One key strategy is investment in social and economic services to support folks, people who may have been driving some of the uptick in violent crime. Another strategy that the Center for Court Innovation has played a strong role in supporting is “Cure Violence,” a program taking a public health approach to violence prevention and response. It’s complex and it’s not going to be a silver bullet, but there’s increasing support from the federal government, and now New York State and New York City as well. People who we call “credible messengers” are a large part of this initiative. They are from the neighborhood that anti-violence programs are located in, and have experience either as victims or perpetrators of violence—often both. They go out in their neighborhoods preventing violence by raising awareness of the impact of that violence on communities. At our organization we call it Save Our Streets (S.O.S.), and it runs in Brooklyn and the Bronx. There’s promising research that supports that program, so we’re continuing it to respond to the increase in violent crime at this time. 

HN: Can you tell us more about the Cure Violence and Save Our Streets initiatives?

CB: Our violence interrupters are really the core component of “Cure Violence.” As people with lived experiences of violence, their role is to keep their ears to the ground to find out where violence may be brewing, then intervene and mediate conflict between parties before it erupts in violence. The role requires them not to be in an office from nine to five, but rather in the community, using the relationships and the credibility that they have to persuade and provide support to folks who may be contemplating using violence. Violence interrupters identify people at high risk of committing violence or being a victim of it, then figure out how to get them the individualized support they need to get on a different path. That might be education, employment, or meeting their basic needs like housing and food. Violence interrupters use their skills and relationships to disrupt emerging conflicts, then mentor community members to support them on a different trajectory. 

HN: You were previously with the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Foundation. What does economic and criminal justice work look like in the philanthropic arm of a private company, as compared to the work in nonprofits?

CB: There’s the philanthropy part of it, which is funding community and nonprofit organizations, giving out grants to support this work. But what was also really interesting to me was what the firm could do. One great part of working in corporate philanthropy, if you’re working in the right place, is that the business itself might be interested in how it can contribute to greater social good beyond just putting in grant dollars. How can you use the core assets of the business itself to make an impact in advancing equity and justice? 

At JPMorgan, we considered the full spectrum of tools that a corporation could provide. There, I worked specifically on the Second Chance initiative that they led. The firm was looking at what we could do to hire more people with criminal records, as well as how we could raise more awareness and commitment from other companies to support Second Chance initiatives. That included hiring, but also other areas like access to affordable housing and financial health. But ultimately, my heart lay in the nonprofit sector, in working for justice reform on the ground. So, after spending some time at JPMorgan and supporting the Second Chance initiative there, I came back to the Center for Court Innovation, where I felt I could have the most impact. 

HN: With respect to your experience in domestic violence programs, what does survivor centeredness and perpetrator accountability mean to you?

CB: I started my career as a public defender, responding to domestic violence and gender-based violence, working with women who had been accused of or charged for a crime connected to their history of experiencing abuse. I was representing people who were victims of violence charged for crimes where they acted in self-defense, sometimes while under duress, but I was also representing people charged with committing harm themselves. Similar to the violence interrupters, we have to recognize that most people are not one or the other: People are often survivors of violence who have experienced trauma themselves, and they go on to become perpetrators. I say this not to mean that every survivor is a perpetrator, but that more often than not, I came to realize that many perpetrators are also survivors of violence. We have to acknowledge and address that foundational trauma that is contributing to their use of violence. Approaching people who have been accused of committing harm with this mindset will help open our eyes to the kinds of support, services, and interventions that will actually be effective in preventing further harm in the future. 

HN: You helped create the roadmap for closing the jail on Rikers Island. What would be the significance of that closure for New York City? 

CB: The commission to study the question of Rikers Island was made up of around two dozen leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds. You had people who had been incarcerated themselves, advocates, representatives from the business community, philanthropy, law enforcement, and the judiciary. I think our range of perspectives and experiences gave credibility to our recommendation that it was essential for New York City to close Rikers. We had to show that it was a stain on our city, and that there was a better way. 

The commission’s work did not just support the Mayor’s commitment to close Rikers, but also contributed to a plan for a smaller incarceration system overall. What do we envision to be a justice system we can be proud of, that centers humanity, dignity, fairness, and rehabilitation? Over the last few years, the city has been making deeper investments and supporting policy aimed at keeping more people out of the criminal justice system in the first place. Then, after we close the jail on Rikers Island, what do we do with the much smaller population of people who may need to be detained for a period of time? How can we do so in a way that’s going to keep them connected to their families and to service providers, with staff who are trained and committed to supporting them? This work is still under way, and we will have to see what the next administration’s commitment to advancing this goal is. My hope is that we can realize the kind of justice system that we want to see in New York City, and show the nation what the possibilities are—that you can significantly reduce the use of prisons and incarceration, and that you can create a humane system for those few who do need to be detained. 

HN: The Center for Court Innovation started from the Midtown Community Court program, which introduced alternatives to incarceration. Could you elaborate on those alternatives and how they work?

CB: The Midtown Community Court was started in 1996 as a way to disrupt the status quo, in terms of large numbers of people being arrested in the city. At the time, we were close to the height of the number of people being incarcerated in New York City—over 20,000, compared to around 6,000 now. The innovation of the Midtown Community Court was recognizing that many of the folks who were coming through the court system for low-level offenses had underlying needs that were not being addressed. What we needed to do, instead of sending them to jail or handing them a fine they could not pay, was to connect them to services as quickly as possible. 

Over the last 25 years, there has been tremendous innovation in the types of programming and services that the Midtown Community Court offers. For example, there are connections to substance abuse treatment and support, mental health services, employment, crisis management, and medical services. Sometimes it’s not even about social services; sometimes it’s about cultural programming that connects people to culture, art, education, and community. We’ve experimented over the years, finding out what folks need and bringing in new partners to provide those services and programs. Again, this model could serve as a template for other community courts around the country. The work of the original Midtown Community Court has already inspired programs like Bronx Community Solutions and Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, and most recently Manhattan Justice Opportunities. They are taking the ideas and principles of community justice and bringing them into a centralized courthouse, trying to scale it up and reengineer the entire system.

HN: In your view, what are the most effective ways to make real and lasting change to the criminal justice system? 

CB: Building relationships. It sounds basic, but it’s so critical both at an individual and at a systemic level. I often describe our work at the Center as being “engaged in relentless engagement.” We engage with the individuals coming through the justice system, building trust, understanding what their underlying needs are, and tapping into their strengths. That only comes when you take time to get to know people, and you keep at it. I think this strategy is true with communities as well; it’s listening and continuing to be there. If we’re trying to support a neighborhood that’s been impacted by violence, poverty, and racism, we approach it by staying at the table and engaging with all the voices in that community. Finally, to make change at the system level, you also need to build a diverse coalition of folks from different perspectives, like the private sector, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and so on. You’re not going to agree on everything, nor should you. But our approach is to continue engaging even when we’re not seeing the progress we hoped for and when we’re not getting the “yes” we wanted to get. It’s like taking the long view and continuing to build those relationships with system actors and with the system itself in order to create change. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.