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...and Justice for All

America’s justice system is broken. The Land of the Free has roughly 2.03 million of its citizens behind bars, giving it one of the highest incarceration rates in the world today. What’s worse is that an estimated two-thirds of inmates released will be re-incarcerated within three years. Such high rates of reoffense, or recidivism, point to the inability of our prisons and correctional facilities to truly rehabilitate felons. Recidivism results in tremendous financial burdens for taxpayers—in terms of paying for the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of repeat offenders—and high social costs to the families and communities of felons. The upshot of all this is that we need to improve the system, and several alternative programs fitting under the umbrella term “restorative justice” are being introduced as part of the solution.

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior, and it’s often accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. Borrowed from indigenous cultures and brought into modernity, for the most part, by two professors, Mark Umbreit and Gordon Bazemore, restorative justice is taking root across the country.

Buffalo currently uses three main restorative justice programs, which are implemented by Child & Family Services’ Center for Resolution and Justice: Community Dispute Resolution, Victim Offender Conferencing (VOC), and the newest, most innovative program, Neighborhood Accountability Boards (NAB). The basic principle behind these programs is simple: force an offender to face his victim(s) and hear their side of the story, and he will become empathetic toward them and less likely to reoffend. Everyone reaps benefits in that the offender is less likely to serve time and has his side of the story heard, the victims are empowered by taking part in the resolution process, and the community is strengthened by opening a dialogue between the parties.

According to Annie Monaco, Director of Restorative Justice Programs for Child & Family Services, in the traditional justice system, “offenders don’t usually get to hear how they’ve impacted people, they really don’t. It’s about punishment and that’s about it.”

Her colleague Julie Loesch, Director of Child & Family Services, takes a similar stance: “I think that the concept of personal responsibility is really what all of these programs are designed for. Sometimes people think this is a soft on crime approach, but I really think it’s much harder for kids, and adults too, to have to come face-to-face with people and view the effects of their behavior than to be processed through a system, which is pretty impersonal.”

Whereas the traditional system sends criminals to prison, which are designed to punish and confine criminals, restorative justice tries to repair the harm by bringing victim and offender together to work out a mutually agreed upon resolution/reparation. Here’s an example: a West Side youth was recently apprehended for spraypainting graffiti on a neighborhood church. In the traditional justice system, he might have gone to juvenile court and been sentenced to community service, end of story. He would never know how he affected churchgoers and the larger community. Instead, though, he was referred to a Neighborhood Accountability Board, where he faced the priest and community members. He wrote an apology letter, but more importantly, listened to how his actions hurt parishioners and community members. One board member told AV, “It was a lot about love, allowing us to show this kid that we cared about him and we wanted to see him do better than he did. And he felt that.” In such youth cases, it’s about nipping the problem in the bud. Said another NAB member, “that one intervention might be enough to prevent him from going into a street gang or further beyond.”

These NABs are the most progressive form of restorative justice currently practiced in Buffalo, because they bring together not only an offender and his true victim, but also trained members of the community, who represent the at-large community and help mediate the agreement. The NAB program is brand new in Buffalo, with about ten board members trained last November who’ve been taking cases since February. So far they’ve handled about a dozen cases, all referred from housing court by Judge Henry Nowak. The cases have ranged from the spraypainting incident to simple housing violations.

On a recent Monday evening, AV was invited to witness Buffalo’s Neighborhood Accountability Board in action. Three board members showed up at the non-descript Delaware Ave. building around 6:10, about twenty minutes before mediation was to begin. They represent a good cross-section of the diverse board: Robin Smith is a social worker for a foster care agency, Jeff Brennan is a community activist who renovates and remodels buildings and Michael Hardy is a young financial consultant. Sitting around a table, these hard-working activists gave their reasons for joining the NAB. Community responsibility, social justice, promoting positive change and community building were the most popular reasons.

Twenty minutes later, John, a Riverside resident who’d been referred to the NAB by Judge Nowak, arrived. Up until that point, his case seemed cut-and-dry. He’d been written into court for several violations, including broken windows, a busted door, holes in the porch, a loose gutter, overgrown lawn and two unregistered cars on the property. Clearly this guy was some kind of slumlord who didn’t care for his property. As soon as mediation began, however, it was clear that there was more to John’s story than looking at his court file would suggest. He said he’d already fixed all of the violations on the house, some of which had been caused by intruders. He talked about the four kids he raises alone, and explained that he works 70+ hours each week in construction. He does to the house what he can, when he can. And slowly, with question after question, the board members gently tugged at the right threads to unravel the real problem: John and his neighbor don’t get along. Not at all. His aging neighbor is uptight, and the two have knocked heads more than once. In the end, if he could work out his problems with the neighbor, he can keep himself out of housing court in the future. The group worked out a way for him to repair the trouble and set a deadline for him to do so. When he left the mediation, it was clear that John was taking pride in the improvements he’d made to his home, and he had a clear idea of what impacts he could have on his neighborhood. More importantly, he left with the sense that his story was heard, too.

There are great expectations for the fledgling NAB program, though it’s struggling to gain traction, thanks to funding problems. Jeff Brennan looks at it this way: “In the end, our goal is to try and get the entire criminal justice system to think about whether the results they’re getting with the methods that they use is something that we all consider worth the money. As a wider community, if just a few more people are connected and care about small things, then other people see that others care, and that completely changes the outlook of a neighborhood.” He envisions the justice system shifting funds from its traditional programs to restorative justice.

For now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Child & Family Services is in desperate need of a volunteer coordinator who can work 10-15 hours a week if its NAB program is to survive. If the program does survive and expand, Buffalo will only be the better for it.

For more information, or to volunteer for the Center for Resolution & Justice, call Julie at 362-2323.