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Interview with James Berry

Interview with James D. Berry, Jr.*
Conducted by Ronald C. Jessamy, Esq.**

RJ:  Tell us a little about your background and what you did before your current position as Deputy Director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia (CSOSA).

JB:  I’m a native Washingtonian.  I grew up in Northeast D.C. during the 1960’s. I’m a product of the DC public schools, graduating from Eastern High School in 1968. I did pretty well in high school, earning an academic scholarship to Villanova University. My siblings and I were first generation collegians in our family. I was 17-years-old when I went away to college, entering a very different world from the community from whence I’d come at the time.
Like most people, my upbringing had a great deal of influence upon my career plans and more importantly my perspective on the city’s criminal justice system. During the 1950’s and early 60’s, DC’s Carver Terrace was then a close-knit community and had not yet been ravaged by drugs. Most of us had in-tact family units, working parents, and came from productive households. But between 1965 and 1968, things took a relatively drastic turn for the worse. That is, as the Vietnam War escalated, a number of the young men with whom I grew up began to get drafted into the military and fairly immediately found themselves in combat. A host of them subsequently returned from the war with heroin habits, and in a few short years, drugs -- mainly marijuana and heroin -- found their way into the community. At the time, narcotics became so prevalent that any 10-year-old in the neighborhood knew where to buy heroin, and a progressively increasing number of them became addicted over time. Predictably, a number of my contemporaries began to engage in criminal activity to support their drug habits and many wound up in prison at Lorton. So my initial interest in criminal justice was shaped by the personal experience of seeing so many of my friends and neighbors coming into contact with the criminal justice system and, as a result, having the direction of their lives unalterably changed subsequent to the experience. Specifically, as a teenager I couldn’t understand why men and women who entered our criminal justice system couldn’t and shouldn’t be expected to come out of prison better off than when they entered into it. So at the time I decided I wanted to work in the justice system and set my sights on becoming a criminal lawyer.

I graduated from Villanova in 1972 with a degree in criminal justice and immediately got drafted, although as luck would have it, the draft ended in November of that year. I was trained as a military policeman and a correctional specialist before being stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia where I served as shift commander in a stockade. So, at 21 years of age, I was responsible for the entire operations of the maximum security cell block during my shift. In the early 1970’s, military service was an option available to judges at sentencing as an alternative to incarceration, so a number of the men in my company entered the U.S. Army as an extension of a diversion program. Most of the men housed in the stockade were between 18 and 27 years of age. More than 80% were there for being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) or for some low-level infraction. This struck me as both unusual and unfortunate. I began to question why people who were often only a few days late returning from authorized leave were immediately placed in the stockade upon their return, and in some instances were drummed out of the military with less than honorable discharges.  Again, the military justice process at that time seemed geared more towards punishment and discharge than it seemed to focus on retraining and reentry into the armed forces, even for low level offenders.

When I was discharged in 1975, I found a job through the CETA Program [the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act signed into law in 1973 by President Richard Nixon to train and employ people in public service] as a program developer for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. While there, I entered into a graduate program at the University of the District of Columbia in counseling and before I knew it I had completed that program of study. As a program developer, my duties included short- and long-term individual counseling of clients manifesting a wide range of social, emotional, and other problems. I also developed memoranda in aid of sentencing for presentation in the D.C. Superior and U.S. District Courts.  And, I functioned as an advocate for my clients in social service delivery systems to facilitate entry into community programs as an alternative to incarceration.

After a couple of years at PDS, around the time I finished graduate school, I essentially abandoned my interest in going to law school. At the time I felt that I could be more helpful to those who had contact with our criminal justice system -- like those with whom I grew up -- on the back end of the system than as a trial lawyer. During my early years at PDS, the lion’s share of our clients had their cases disposed of through plea agreements. So, the focus of my work involved the fashioning of dispositional alternatives for the Court’s consideration that held the potential for realistically helping them to eventually repair and rebuild their lives. This challenge and professional pursuit became a passion for me. Hence, I spent the next 25 years doing this work with literally thousands of clients.

In 2000, I left PDS to join the Office of Community Justice Programs at CSOSA.  At the time, I was very active in the DC community as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, with the DC Federation of Civic Associations, and with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Citizens Advisory Council process. So, I was invited to come to CSOSA as a Community Relations Specialist to assist the agency in, among other important duties, helping it to convey to DC residents the importance of partnering with them in order to keep our community safe and also give our supervisees a realistic chance of rehabilitating themselves. This was during the time of the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiative that had taken hold in justice agencies and this was a novel approach to community justice. I thought then, as I do now, that as an agency CSOSA could make a meaningful and lasting impact upon the thousands of people whom we supervise annually by working as hard as we can to maximize their chances for success. We did some really important work in the community during the two years I served as a Community Relations Specialist and I would have remained there, had I not been offered the opportunity to return to the DC Public Defender Service to do seminal work on its reentry initiatives as well as to organize what later became the Community Defender Division of the PDS.
In 2002, I returned to PDS to manage three initiatives. The first involved our Juvenile Services Program (JSP) that provided legal representation in disciplinary proceedings to children at the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services secure detention facility in Laurel, Maryland and its Youth Services Center in Northeast DC. The JSP also handled a variety of complaints and concerns lodged by residents of these two facilities relative to their conditions of confinement.  The second initiative was called the Institutional Services (or Prisoner’s Rights) Program. The services of the ISP were available to any of the DC Code Offenders who were housed in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and those in a DC Department of Corrections facility. As you know, felons from DC are sent to serve their sentences in the BOP system and we were one of the only government agencies in the city from whom these prisoners could seek legal assistance when they had concerns about sentences that they felt had been incorrectly calculated; their medical needs not attended to; allegations of staff abuse; and other issues that were related to the conditions of their confinement. Importantly, the ISP also communicated with and assisted those who were returning to the city with certain of their reentry needs. The Community Defender Division’s third initiative dealt with community reentry issues and began sponsoring Community Reentry and Expungement Summits to assist those with criminal records.
Then earlier this year, the opportunity presented itself to return to CSOSA in an altogether different role as Deputy Director, and I’ve been in that position since May 4, 2014. This time, I am assisting Director Nancy Ware in her commitment to maintain CSOSA’s place in the nation as a model of excellence among offender supervision agencies.

RJ:  Is this a big change for you, coming from PDS to CSOSA? Are there many contrasts between the two agencies?

JB:  Not as many as one might think. The mission of CSOSA is to enhance public safety, prevent crime and reduce recidivism among those supervised, as well as to support the fair administration of justice in close collaboration with the community. In laymen’s terms, we exist to help keep safe those who live, work and/or visit the District of Columbia. Of equal importance, we exist to do everything within our power to help give those who are under our supervision a maximum opportunity to succeed in making a productive reentry and reintegration into the DC community. We do this by attempting to provide for our clients a realistic chance at rehabilitating themselves and, to the extent possible, by helping them to squarely and productively address the consequences of a criminal record. In my role as the Chief of the Community Defender Division at PDS, I could influence change within the organization. At CSOSA, I am in a position to create change and be a part of that change that I’d like to see take place. The thinking and the values among the leadership as well as the rank and file at CSOSA are much more progressive than I expected. Indeed, it is Director Ware’s vision to operate a model community supervision agency that is recognized for positively impacting public safety and for giving each and every client under our supervision a maximum opportunity to succeed.

RJ:  What are your biggest challenges right now and what’s new at CSOSA these days?

JB:  One fifth of those under supervision are under 25 years of age. So Director Ware started a young adult initiative for those between 18 and 25, that uses motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapeutic interventions to help meet the fairly unique needs of this growing population. Many young people in this group have limited education and a significant lack of marketable skills. Nearly 90% have a self-reported history of substance use, and roughly 50% are unemployed. The cohort is looking for an opportunity to redeem themselves, but the opportunities for this to happen are too few. So CSOSA has created a youth initiative to substantially enhance their chances for success.

We also have other specialized units that assist clients with the various challenges that they face in life, including domestic violence, mental health issues, and the need of treatment for substance use and abuse. In all of our interactions with clients, we seek to be an agency that is thoughtful and responsive in our approach to meeting people where they are. Indeed, we want to be strategic in our planning with an evidence-based approach to treatment. But of course, the challenge is also to get the public to understand both “sides of the equation.” We are obviously limited in our ability to assure that everyone under our supervision will always make good choices in their lives. So, it is inevitable that some of our clients will find themselves in trouble from time to time while under our supervision. However, if we provide all of these men and women with a robust menu of services designed to help them succeed, and we can continue to receive the active support of the DC community, then I believe that most of our clients can and will succeed because we will have substantially reduced the number of persons who are most likely to recidivate.

Director Ware also instituted a “Fatality Review” process that is intended to help us to learn from our experiences. That is, if someone under our supervision is accused of a homicide or is the victim of a fatality, we conduct a thorough review of the circumstances that seemed to have led to that outcome, in an effort to see what lessons can be learned from the tragedy.  First and foremost, we look at the client's supervision experience to make certain that there weren’t any cues or signs that we might have picked up that could help us with a future client who might be in a similar situation, and because retaliation is often a possibility when loved ones of our clients have been murdered, we make sure that we talk to the surviving relative to help him/her decompress from the tragedy. So there is a significant level of pro-action to our thinking and our work with the vulnerable populations whom we supervise and our work in the communities from whence they come. Again, it goes back to our dual mission of enhancing public safety but also of providing opportunities for people who have made mistakes to succeed under supervision, rather than having a reflexive expectation that they will fail.

RJ:  It’s widely known that you do a great deal for the community. Can you tell us about your community activism?

JB:  For 18 consecutive years, I served as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the Truxton Circle community in which I lived. For 15 of those years, I was elected to serve as the chairman of my ANC and for approximately six years during this time, I chaired the Citywide Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner’s Assembly. Many years ago, when the DC Bar had a Citizens’ Advisory Committee, I chaired that group for a time and served for two terms (six years) as a community member of the DC Bar Board of Governors. I have chaired the Metropolitan Police Department’s Citizens’ Advisory Council under Chief Lanier and I have been an executive committee member of the Washington, DC Police Foundation since its inception.   I have worked in our local criminal justice system for more than 30 years, and I consider the work I have done in the community in which I live as an extension of my career interest and efforts to be an agent of productive change in the city of my birth. In my view, each of us has a responsibility to do as much as we can to improve the quality of the lives of the people around us, and it is through my professional and community pursuits that I have chosen to discharge this duty.

RJ:  How did you first get involved with the Council for Court Excellence, and what are some of your most memorable activities with CCE?

JB:  It was in the 1980’s. I was the chairman of the CAC to the DC Bar at the time.  Sam Harahan -- one of CCE’s founders and for 20 years its Executive Director – contacted me to find out if he could come to one of our meetings to make a presentation about CCE’s Jury Appreciation Project. CCE was working on jury reform, particularly on how to increase the number of people for jury service, and was sponsoring a jury appreciation campaign. What Sam and CCE were advocating made a lot of sense, and I got the CAC to pass a resolution in support it. I got several Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to be supportive as well. So after that, Sam invited me to come to a CCE meeting and that was pretty much it! From there, I got involved in the organization’s Court Observation Project in the late 1990’s. Subsequently, I got involved in the School Jury Education Program that’s been going on for the last nearly 20 years.

More recently, I’ve worked closely with CCE’s Reentry Initiative, an opportunity to marry my volunteer work with my professional work. I returned to PDS around the same time as the Council for Court Excellence’s initial forays into reentry issues, beginning with its research on expungement laws around the country and a proposal to the DC Council for a local statute, the Criminal Record Sealing Act of 2006.  From there, the Reentry Project Committee worked on CCE’s 2011 report, Unlocking Employment Opportunity, followed by the safe hiring legislation passed by the DC Council two years later. I’m still serving on the Reentry Project Committee, and I remain quite active through my service on the Executive Committee as well.

RJ:  What keeps you interested in CCE’s work?

JB:  The Reentry Initiative, going back to about 2005, has been very important. With the more recent examination of the relationship between unemployment and recidivism, CCE has educated a broad segment of the community about the importance of gainful employment. 

But my sustained interest runs deep. The focus on helping people become more familiar with the court and the justice system in general has long attracted me to the Council’s work. It’s a “resource-rich” group that has an eclectic mix of professionals at the table, and I think that’s what has maintained my interest for so long. The perspective of the organization is multi-layered, and there’s a level of respect and diversity within the group that doesn’t allow competing voices at the table to be overwhelmed by an insular point of view during our discussion of issues, and that’s what I like. People in the organization and at the table have always listened to me and to others from the community like me, and that’s always been important to me. It’s not just a group that solely considers the interests of lawyers. CCE’s work is cutting edge, and remains consistent with what I’ve done professionally. So my interest and commitment remain strong.

RJ:  What do you like to do in your spare time and what exactly keeps you going?

JB:  I’m from a very close-knit family, so family is really at the core of my life. My parents and all my siblings continue to live in the Washington Metropolitan Area, so we spend a lot of time together. I also spend time with folks I’ve mentored along the way, and that keeps my life interesting. But I don’t work all the time like I used to. My life is much more balanced now between the professional and the personal.

But I do think a lot about my past, present, and future. Robert Kennedy once said that “few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the totality of those acts will be written the history of this generation.” I have always believed that one cannot change history, but together, we can advance the ball and make the world a better place. I guess that’s what keeps me going. 

*James D. Berry, Jr. has served as the Deputy Director for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia (CSOSA) since May 4, 2014.

**Ronald C. Jessamy, Esq. has been in private practice in the District of Columbia since 1974, is a former President of the Washington Bar Association, and a CCE Board Director since 1989.


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