Rocket Science: Courtney Bryan
Courtney Bryan is Executive Director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that creates operating programs to test new ideas and solve problems, performs original research to determine what works (and what doesn’t), and provides expert assistance to justice reformers around the world.
New York City courts have been depicted in countless movies and TV shows. What’s something they universally get wrong?
There are so many things, but I’ll give you three good ones. First, a sense of clarity. Onscreen, everything happens very matter-of-factly. But if you’re a regular person observing the courtroom, or even if you’re the accused in a criminal court or a litigant in civil court, it can be difficult to follow what’s going on. In real life, it’s hard to follow the plot, despite the best efforts of the attorneys or the judge.
Second, the amount of time you see spent before the judge, and the level of discourse happening on TV, happens maybe half a percent of the time. Unless it’s a trial or a hearing, being in court is a bureaucratic, opaque, boring, and incredibly quick experience — often less than two minutes in front of a judge.
The third thing is something you wouldn’t see unless you go to courts regularly, especially courts serving black and brown communities, or people who are poor, or criminal courts, family courts, housing courts. There are little heroes everywhere in these court communities, places where it can be a challenge to find messages of dignity and respect.
There’s that one court officer who helps the process move along, or the person who sells coffee in the courthouse. They make people who often feel invisible feel respected and treated well. Those heroes exist in every courthouse I’ve ever been in, and they almost never show up in media depictions of courts.
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
My husband is an artist who has wide interests, but particularly around contemporary art. One piece hanging by our front door, before you leave to go out into the world, is this little framed postcard of a landscape.
The artist, Paul McMahon, has written in a big marker on it “Join the gentle revolution.” I love this piece, and I love seeing it as I walk out the door. Especially now, going back to the office on a regular basis, it’s a reminder about who I hope to be and who I hope my kids will be in the world. Making a better life for all, but in sometimes quiet, gentle, humble ways.
What’s something you do to relax?
I started this job on the first day of lockdown in New York City. March 16th was my first day on the job, and it has been a relentless 18 months. It is very easy to think about work all the time, so, one thing I have forced myself to do is to ride my bike.
I got a bike ten years ago and never rode it, and like so many people this year, I rediscovered the joys of bike riding. I just feel so rejuvenated after I come back from a bike ride. It embodies my intentional message of “Stop working, Courtney.”
What’s a way technology can help improve the court system?
One thing really lacking in the field is access to good data. Greater investment in data collection and analysis can help us figure out how to combat gun violence, reduce the reliance on fees and fines, and think about solutions differently.
I’d also like to see tech solutions that make it easier for people to access justice. There’s a massive opportunity for tech to help improve people’s connection to services, like faster, more efficient communication with attorneys and the court.
For instance, we could create community-based access to a courtroom for a domestic violence survivor who needs to file for an order of protection. Instead of having to get on the train, find daycare or have a sitter for the child, take off work, go into a downtown courthouse, what if we create ways to go into a community center or a local service provider to access basic and critical court functions?
Make it easier for people in the court system to appear remotely. Make it easier to receive supervision remotely, instead of having to come in person for everything. The groundwork is there. Remote communication has advanced exponentially during the pandemic. This could have a tremendous impact on equity and the ability for people to continue on with their lives as they engage with the legal system.
What’s the biggest challenge when communicating the Center’s mission to the public?
Our organization often acts as a bridge between government and communities, and we work within the system to make change. Frequently that can be a behind-the-scenes kind of role, working with prosecutors, judges, and community members.
You have to be in the weeds, working in quiet spaces that aren’t necessarily conducive to a big headline. That’s the work of real change, and it’s not easy to convey in a communications plan or a sound bite.
People can make commitments and advance an agenda on issues like reducing the use of incarceration or limiting fees and fines, but it’s translated by individuals working the night shift at arraignments at 120 Schermerhorn in Brooklyn. What decision is happening there at 11:30 pm on a Tuesday?
This moment presents an opportunity for us to be even bolder. There’s a much bigger interest in justice reform, accountability, and racial justice now compared to even five years ago. An interest, in part, coming from segments of the broader public privileged to not have this impact their lives directly.
It’s a complex message because it’s not just about legislative or policy change. It’s about very granular decisions along a spectrum of decisions that have to change in order for people to thrive and be safe in their communities, and also dramatically reduce the footprint of the current legal system in people’s lives.
What’s your favorite outdoor space?
I live in New Jersey, and we moved there from Brooklyn about seven years ago. We have a hammock in our backyard under a beautiful canopy of leaves, and laying in that hammock in fall is probably one of my favorite places to be outside. Really simple, really restorative.
We’re going on a road trip. It has to be quarantine-compliant and within a day’s drive of New York City. Where should we go?
Before I had kids, my husband and I would do this pretty frequently on a Saturday. We’d just get in the car and head west from New York City. It was the best. I always drove and he curated the experience: what we’re listening to, where we’re gonna eat, and where we’re gonna go. Those are some of my favorite memories, when we just got on a highway and saw where we went.
We went to farmlands in New Jersey, the Black Dirt Region on the NJ-NY border, old towns in Pennsylvania — we’d stumble across these old mining towns and ghost towns that felt otherworldly. Massive structures and totally different landscapes just a few hours outside the city.
We’d discover these off-the-beaten-path wonders, then find the restaurant or the little store in town. Discovering places and backyard hammocks — I mean, I have very simple pleasures.
To recap, your favorite road trip for us to all take is a curated trip west with your husband.
Exactly. Wherever he takes us.
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