Sunday, 20 Jun 2021

Michael Smith, a Voice for Justice Reform, Is Dead at 78

Michael Smith, who helped shape policies that promoted community policing, eased cash requirements for bail and encouraged prosecutors and judges to explore alternatives to prison, died on May 31 at his home in Minneapolis. He was 78.

The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Katherine Kruse, said.

From 1974 through 1995, Mr. Smith profoundly influenced the law enforcement agenda in New York, nationally and even abroad as an official of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan research foundation now based in Brooklyn, and as a member of city and state commissions appointed to recommend bail and sentencing reforms.

“I always referred to him as ‘a tough-minded innovator with a heart who was more interested in results than credit,’” Bill Bradley, who attended Princeton University alongside Mr. Smith as well as also Oxford University, where they were both Rhodes scholars, and who went on to became a high-scoring New York Knicks forward and a United States senator, said by email. “How did he get things done? He got other people to believe his ideas were theirs.”

Among the experimental and prototypical projects at Vera that were spun off as quasi-public agencies were the New York City Victim Services Agency, the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, the Center for Employment Opportunities and the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, as well as programs for renters facing eviction and for older people and people with disabilities.

Jeremy Travis, a former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice who is now the executive vice president for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy, credited Mr. Smith with laying the groundwork for nonprofit agencies “to do the work of justice” in New York City, and for the introduction of community policing in the mid-1980s.

Through experiment and research, Mr. Travis said, Mr. Smith’s strategy was “We’re going to learn from something and work with government to make policies more fair and effective.”

In 1982, Mr. Smith told The New York Times that “to put the entire burden of crime control alone on the Police Department — we wouldn’t find enough police officers to substitute for all the other forces around that we need to control behavior and guide adolescents in their growing up.”

In another Times interview, he said: “You can generate more arrests this year than last year every year. But if you want to create safety, you have to put the police in an operating alliance with other institutions.”

Lucy Freedman, a former president of the Victim Services Agency (now Safe Horizon), said by email that Mr. Smith’s questions “led to an analysis that revealed that 40 percent of robberies were committed by people known to the victim, encouraging police to reframe how they thought about prevention, which contributed to new approaches to community policing.”

The Vera Institute of Justice was founded in 1961 by Louis Schweitzer, a philanthropist, and Herb Sturz, a magazine editor who went on to become chairman of the City Planning Commission and a deputy mayor during the Koch administration. It was named for Mr. Schweitzer’s mother. The two men’s goal was to correct what they viewed as inequities in a bail system that detained defendants simply for being poor.

“Many institutions fail when their visionary, charismatic founder leaves,” said Greg Berman, who directed the Center for Court Innovation, founded as a partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, for 25 years.

“That wasn’t the case at Vera,” Mr. Berman added. “Following in Herb’s footsteps, Michael solidified Vera’s reputation as one of the most important criminal justice reform organizations in the country.”

Michael Edward Smith was born on June 30, 1942, in Manhattan to Francis E. Smith, an importer, and Alexandra (McNally) Smith.

Raised in Darien, Conn., Michael attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and graduated in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton. In the summer of 1964 he coordinated volunteers for the Mississippi Freedom Schools at Princeton; that fall, he was the starting center on the college’s undefeated football team.

From 1965 to 1967, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he earned a degree in philosophy, politics and economics and roomed with Mr. Bradley. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970.

After working as an assistant to Charles E. Goodell, a Republican senator from New York, he helped establish a public-interest law firm, the Legal Action Center of the City of New York, and served as its deputy director. He directed a Vera office in London, which experimented with criminal justice programs in Britain, from 1974 to 1977. He returned to New York as Vera’s deputy director and was its director from 1988 to 1995.

After leaving Vera, Mr. Smith taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison until 2009. In addition to his wife, whom he met when she was a law professor there, he is survived by his son, Graham Smith; his daughter, Charlotte Smith; his stepson, Kinkaid Kruse-Frink; his stepdaughter, Evelyn Rose Livermore; and his sister, Catherine Sheridan Smith.

Mark Usdane, who worked with Mr. Smith at Vera, remembered him as “smart,” “irreverent.,” “determined” and “intolerant of grousing.”

“Not once,” Mr. Usdane said in an email, “did I take a can of worms to him that he didn’t redefine, ventilate and elevate.”

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