Portraits of Leadership
Hyperakt’s new interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today we’re talking with Aubrey Fox, Executive Director of New York City Criminal Justice Agency. The Agency’s mission is to assist the courts and the City in reducing unnecessary pretrial detention through research, case analysis, release assessments, and pretrial services.
From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?
From my little corner of the world, my staff are trying to support the City’s work to release people from Rikers Island, and I think the practical challenges of doing this work are underreported.
The twitterati debate is about why the City isn’t moving more quickly, as if there was a dial that could be easily turned up or down that resulted in the jails emptying or filling up.
The reality is that this is a tremendously complicated process involving multiple stakeholders working together in new ways under enormous pressure. I think the next few months and years even are going to show the distance between what can be accomplished rhetorically and what can be accomplished practically, and now more than ever we need to be able to celebrate what may seem like little victories from the outside.
One of my favorite phrases is that ‘people tend to overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term.’ I think it’s urgently necessary to right that balance, or we will struggle to get out from under this global crisis.
How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?
Taking a step back, I am amazed at what we have been able to accomplish in a short time. With our Supervised Release program that I referenced above, it’s not just about supporting the release of people from Rikers. We have around 600 people under active supervision where we are moving away from face-to-face contact with a social worker to contact over the phone and video.
My agency is also responsible for notifying every person released pretrial in New York City, and there are about 20,000 people who have had their court dates postponed for the foreseeable future.
Within a week, we were able to launch a new program to provide each of those 20,000 people regular text-based updates — and a human being to speak to with questions — about benefits, health and mental health issues.
These are typically programs that would take months to conceive, plan and launch, but we pulled two off (with a lot of help and leadership from our partners, including the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice) in two weeks.
What gives you hope in this moment?
I think everyone has a hunger for belonging and connection — and even more so in the middle of a pandemic that forces us to be isolated physically from one another. I’ve seen that from my staff — a collective desire to have a positive impact on the world while maintaining relationships with one another. It’s inspiring to be part of, and I feel a responsibility to nurture and support that human impulse.
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