Behavior Change Case Study: The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

An ever-increasing body of evidence shows the glaring need for criminal justice reform. While many institutional leaders talk about this need, few are planning and taking the steps necessary to bring about the deep cultural shifts that will help realize it. One beacon on the horizon is the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office in New York, where a multi-year effort is underway to shift the longstanding culture of that office, its mission, and its day to day work from punitive to restorative.

Alexander Shermansong has been supporting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and his team of 1,300 employees in realizing this culture shift over the past two years. He’s founder and principal of Civic Consulting USA, a boutique consultancy focused on helping elected officials, local governments, and those who work with them to advance a variety of urban innovations. He’s also a professor of research and teaching at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy, where he lectures on public policy, smart cities, and culture change.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez made history when he became the first Latino District Attorney in New York State in November 2017. He had been appointed Acting District Attorney by Governor Andrew Cuomo a year earlier following the death of his predecessor, the late Ken Thompson, for whom he had served as Chief Assistant District Attorney. Following his election, District Attorney Gonzalez hired his campaign manager to champion his broad vision for reform.

Alexander says the DA is “strongly committed to doing things differently.” For instance:

  1. His team invited a committee of nearly one hundred professionals and community members to participate in an “outside in” process whereby they offered their perspective on a shared vision for reform. The panel represented a cross section of disciplines including police, lawyers, defenders, prosecutors, judges, people who served time in prison, reform advocates, ministers, funders, and academics.
  2. His implementation plan was developed by many hands. Alexander says: “It wasn’t just senior managers on the 19th floor; more than half the attorneys in the DA’s office were involved in shaping the implementation plan.”

“The scope of this work involves the development of a public-facing reform strategy, as well as ongoing management of shifting the culture and practices the organization uses to do its work,” explains Alexander. The transformation plan has four components:

  1. Change the office culture so that prosecutors consider jail only as a last resort.
  2. Focus resources on the drivers of crime.
  3. Work with communities as partners in justice.
  4. Invest in the people and data systems of the office.

“By reshaping the culture, the DA intends to move from a conviction-and-incarceration-oriented, top-down organization to one that looks at each defendant as an individual and expects the trial lawyers involved in the case to determine what specific intervention would make amends for the harm caused and deter future criminal behavior,” says Alexander. He offers two concrete examples of systemic behavior change in this initiative:

Bail

“Two years ago, the District Attorney changed the bail policy dramatically—and New York state law soon followed suit. Rather than defaulting to ask for bail in every case and justifying any time they didn’t, the DA required his team to justify whenever they ask for bail in a misdemeanor case. The DA also began reviewing a daily report of all bail requests, and periodically asked attorneys to explain their reasoning. This shift led to significant changes in what the line prosecutors were doing—a 43% reduction within one year,” Alexander says.

Sentencing

“The DA began asking the questions, ‘Are there reasons not to prosecute? What is the least restrictive, most community-based intervention possible for this particular case?’ Part of the mindset that he’s challenging here is the fact that many people had been trained to take a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ approach. Instead, charges of drug possession should be looked at as a public health issue and defendants referred to treatment without having to plead guilty,” he explains.

Capacity building with the DA’s office team helped integrate these new practices. “Before these changes in presumptions and practices were rolled out, we surveyed staff and facilitated discussion groups across the office. In response to what we were hearing, we developed and shared more model cases so folks could better understand the new expectations and how cases would typically go under these new presumptions,” Alexander says.

“The office has been re-writing performance guidelines so the culture of the organization could formally recognize other achievements in addition to trial convictions. This is a big issue:  aligning how the organization approaches career advancement with the new way it’s approaching cases. Historically, eligibility for promotions hinged on how many convictions an attorney had won over a certain timeframe.”

New technology also plays an important role in supporting integration of these expected behavior changes. “The office began rolling out new computer systems to help embed the new behaviors,” says Alexander. These involve processes of:

  1. Discovery. “These are the materials the prosecutor turns over to the defense. With this new computer system, we’re creating a way to electronically file those materials. It makes all this paperwork easier to turn over, and easier for the supervisors to make sure the turn over happens in a complete and timely fashion. All of this fosters a greater sense of—and an expectation of—fairness within the system.”
  2. Case Management. “Up until now, the office had been paper-based. This means there’s been little capacity for analysis or transparency. By creating a digital case management system based on one prosecutor handling each case from inception to disposition, they will create more familiarity with the facts of each case—and more opportunities to measure and reward alternatives to prosecution rather than more punitive responses.”

At the staff level, there are human resource-oriented changes that are creating internal alignment with these new practices. For instance, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office is large—there are 1,300 employees, 500 of whom are lawyers, and the organizational distinction between legal staff and non-legal staff was profound. “Rather than ‘non-legal staff,’ referring to them as ‘professional staff’ recognizes each person for the valuable role they play in this system, and seeks to instill a sense of pride in those critically important jobs,” says Alexander.

The DA’s office also made changes to the nature of the investments it makes in staff. As a start, staff received new computers, because the organization respects and cares for them and the important work they do. “We came to see that the office—lawyers and professional staff alike—live in the same communities as people involved in the justice system are from. As part of this culture shift, we wanted to explicitly recognize and legitimize the important ambassador role employees play in their community, with their churches, neighbors, and community groups.”

Additionally, training has significantly increased, including implicit bias and cultural competency training. “The DA’s office is very diverse; the staff and jurisdiction are diverse. We wanted to help this organization and its people be more aware of the best ways to work with individuals and their communities. The entire team needs support to make sure they’re hearing things right, that they’re working to close the gap that difference can create. How can we listen to and truly hear a person with severe mental illness? How can we understand what someone from an ethnic community different from our own is saying—and not saying? How can we know the right questions to ask, the right way to navigate conversations so we can begin to develop a sense of trust?”

Culture shifts are happening at every level, from executive to line staff. “When we did the staff survey, we could see that people were hungry for more internal communication.” Toward that end, early last year the DA’s office held what is now an annual all-staff town hall meeting. “This was something that hadn’t been done in many years. We solicited questions from all staff in advance, and farmed out the responsibility for answering the questions to different members of the entire leadership team. It wasn’t just DA speaking, as often happens in forums with elected officials. It was a chance for everyone on the team to hear from the DA and the executive team directly.”

“In terms of results, two years in, we’re seeing that some of our policy shifts—bail reform, for instance—have become official state law, so those changes have taken root and have been pretty straightforward,” says Alexander. “But the changes to the approach with more difficult cases, like felonies, haven’t been so easy. The more complicated cases raise deep-seated beliefs about justice, about the role of punishment in the justice system, and about how law enforcement keeps people safe.”

Another challenge to the changes taking root is the sheer amount of time and effort the reformed processes can take. “As attorneys are looking more at community service provision instead of jail time—instead of simply trying to get someone to accept a plea deal, you’re trying to understand what type of intervention would simultaneously hold that individual responsible, deter future crime, and help that person become a more constructive member of the community. Getting to a community-based alternative is a whole different way of doing the work.”

Toward that end, a focus of the DA’s office will be to engage directly with communities to establish affinity groups and then turn to them to define safety, equity, and community-driven practices. “Often prosecution works by starting with the most severe charge—that’s what you tell the victim you’re going for—and using that to negotiate to a plea,” Alexander explains. “Going forward, the team will reframe the language from ‘alternatives to incarceration’ to community justice, which holds individuals accountable without relying on a conviction, jail, or prison. Community members can help define and deliver these programs—thus arriving together arrive at a course of action that will ensure the community stays safe.”

These aspirational shifts are ones that Alexander anticipates may take years to unfold—possibly longer than the elected District Attorney first term, which is just four years long. “To make these changes stick will take longer. DAs don’t have term limits, so if crime continues to go down, we’ll likely have more time to cement these changes into everyday practice,” Alexander explains. “Ultimately success depends on what happens with crime over the next couple of years, how much people in Brooklyn trust the justice system, and how safe they feel each day and night.”

Behavior Change Analysis

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office reforms provide an excellent example of behavior change requiring attention and effort on many fronts. From systems and technology, to human resources and processes, multiple changes have been underway in parallel within this organization.

The DA made his reform aspirations known upon winning his historic election, when many eyes were focused on his ascendancy. This making the kickoff of District Attorney Gonzalez’s transformative efforts TIMELY.

By announcing changes to the bail processes early on in the effort, the change management team took aim at shifting the DEFAULT presumptions that had historically driven those processes.

In re-writing the organization’s guidelines, the change management team created INCENTIVES for staff to aspire to new goals and outcomes in their work, and made pursuing case resolutions that featured outcomes other than convictions more ATTRACTIVE to the prosecutors.

In ushering in new technological systems designed to integrate new behaviors and practices into the day to day operations of the organization, the change management team made it EASY to submit materials and track open cases. This will also ultimately pave the way for creating and tracking data to help monitor progress made as the reforms unfold.

In investing in the staff’s capacity as ambassadors, the change management team established a team of MESSENGERS who could carry communications between their office and their communities, thereby making the reforms SOCIAL, solidifying relationships, encouraging interaction between community and DA’s office, and building community trust and buy-in regarding the organization and its reforms.

In its intentions to focus on engaging the victims of crime, holding space for dialogue and definition of what justice means to them, and shifting the language of DA office staff from talking about “cases” to talking about “people,” the DA’s office is upholding its COMMITMENT to realizing justice, and to humanizing the justice process for the entire community.

Alexander puts it best: “This shift is so important: changing the culture of this organization and how it does its work, right down to the very language the team uses. The DA is encouraging a shift from talking about cases to talking about people. If you’re prosecuting a case, you’re processing and disposing the case. If you’re prosecuting a person involved in a case, you’re asking yourself ‘how can I help this person get on a different path?’”

To learn more about the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and their reform efforts, please visit http://www.brooklynda.org/eric-gonzalez/.


The theoretical basis for the Behavior Change Blog Series is informed by two mnemonic frameworks shown in detail below. The MINDSPACE framework is a list of the elements that inform cognitive biases and human behaviors, while the EAST framework is a list of directives that are derived from MINDSPACE and help inform strategies for influencing behavior change in humans. These two frameworks were established by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a social enterprise based in the United Kingdom.

 

MINDSPACE Framework EAST Framework
Messenger – We are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us. Make it Easy – Harness the power of defaults, reduce the ‘hassle factor’, simplify messages.
Incentives – Our response to incentives is shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as reference points, aversion to losses, and overweighting of small probabilities. Make it Attractive – Draw people toward preferred behaviors, design rewards and sanctions to maximize effect.
Norms – We are strongly influenced by what others do. Make it Social – Show people the norm, use the power of networks to encourage and support, encourage people to make a commitment.
Defaults – We “go with the flow” of pre-set options. Make it Timely – Prompt people when they are most likely to be receptive, consider immediate costs and benefits, help people plan their response.
Salience – Our attention is drawn to what is novel and also to what seems relevant to us.
Priming – We are often influenced by subconscious cues.
Affect – Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments – We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and to reciprocate acts.
Ego – We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

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