CE Criminal Justice Day


Day Session Blog: Thomas Gordon, Gross Shuman P.C.

What are the different facets of the criminal and legal systems in Buffalo; and the “lifecycle” of a crime from arrest to parole?

From our CSJ day, it is clear that the facets and layers of the criminal and legal systems in Buffalo are seemingly endless. And these varied layers appear to both be part of the problem when it comes to criminal/social justice reform as well as a reason for optimism. Because many of the vital actors and organizations in the system are not necessarily connected to each other as well as they could be, the system, in effect, appears to end up failing itself on occasion due to a lack of communication and understanding. For example, many of the speakers we heard from this week (as well as on previous LB days re: Education, etc.) have been adamant about the increase in mental health issues among their populations over the last decade or so. Our CSJ day panelists also echoed this concern and indicated that the severity of the mental health issue in the criminal justice system has not yet been recognized to the extent required by the powers that be. As a result, an individual that might be more in need of mental health treatment rather than a lengthy jail sentence may end up becoming a frequent-flyer in the criminal justice system rather than a productive member of society.

On the other hand, we also heard about how a number of the organizations in the criminal and social justice system are beginning to communicate and connect better with each other with beneficial results. For example, Captain Steve Nicholas of the Buffalo Police Department explained the importance the PD places on “community policing” and working with the various social justice organizations (like SNUG, Peacemakers, OPEN Buffalo, etc.) in order to connect with the community when a crime has been committed. As a result, this reaching out to the community has allowed for better information sharing as well as the ability of the PD to better protect the families of those that have been involved in a crime.

What does social justice and activism look like in the Buffalo community?

It looks to me like a series of purposeful, devoted, informed individuals and organizations that have generally come in to existence as a grassroots response to clear needs of their community members often going unrecognized or underserved by traditional institutions.

What is the face and voice to “the system” of criminal justice, for both offenders and enforcement?

The impression I get of the perceived face and voice of “the system” of criminal justice to offenders is that of a heavy-handed, soul-less bureaucracy that seems to care more about keeping jails filled than rehabilitation and restorative justice. The face and voice of “the system” to enforcement, is similar, it seems, in that law enforcement at times also feels weighed down and constricted by the bureaucracy of a system which can restrict them from being able to implement certain changes necessary to effect meaningful improvements in the criminal justice system.

From some of the speakers we heard on our CSJ Day, changing these perceptions continues to be a work in progress.

What about this day impacted you the most?

This is a difficult question because so much of what we heard was incredibly impactful. The most positive thing I will take away from our CSJ day is the fact that there are so many heroic individuals out in our community doing the difficult but vital work of standing up for those that are in most need of assistance. I found myself impressed and in awe of the character and commitment of so many of the individuals we heard from on our CSJ day. Whether it was the devoted team at the Family Justice Center saving the lives of battered individuals on a daily basis, or the attorneys from the public defender’s office or Legal Aid Bureau choosing to defend, in some cases, the indefensible because they believe so strongly in our legal system, or the tireless work that Cindi McEachon and her Peaceprints team do with assisting those reentering society following time behind bars, or Captain Nicholas and his officers putting their lives on the line in order to keep innocent community members safe from harm, the will and bravery of these committed individuals in the trenches of our legal and social justice systems will stick with me for a very long time. Although a number of the panelists we heard from on our day recited the popular refrain that the legal system “is not like what you see on TV”, I would disagree in one respect: like we see on many TV shows and movies, there really are heroes all around us.

How can we, as leaders in the community, work to improve Criminal and Social Justice in WNY?

Outside of certain at-risk communities where social justice issues are front and center on a daily basis, I believe there is a real lack of understanding of (i) the social and criminal justice issues facing our city in general as well as (ii) all of the good work being done by both social justice groups and law enforcement on this front. As a result, I believe something as simple as discussing what we’ve learned with our colleagues and spreading the word so that the scope of the problems can be better understood by more people could be really be beneficial. In addition, almost all of the social and restorative justice groups we met offer multiple opportunities for volunteers to be involved. I believe gaining ground-level experience with some of these organizations would serve to educate and allow us to better understand how we can assist from our positions outside of the criminal and social justice arenas.

Based on your day today, what is the biggest challenge in CSJ in Buffalo today?

Frankly, getting people to understand/care about individuals caught up in the criminal system is often easier said than done. It is unfortunately easy for some people to dismiss those that end up serving time as deserving of their punishment regardless of the offense or circumstances that brought them there.

It is also easy to forget the often difficult and dangerous work that law enforcement encounters on a daily basis as well as the commitment they are making to building trust in the communities they serve. Lumping all enforcement officers together based upon the bad acts of a small percentage can make the effort to build bridges difficult.

I believe getting people to acknowledge the above perceptions they may have could go a long way in the effort to bring meaningful reform.

How does the Servant Leadership trait of Persuasion apply to this day session?

As mentioned above, criminal and social justice issues are ripe for discussion in a community that has often looked away rather than facing the sometimes difficult truths present in the City and towns where we live. It is therefore an area where the power of persuasion both by those in the system (offenders, law enforcement, attorneys, social justice advocates) as well as by those of us on the outside is really vital if we want to continue to see positive change. Additional thoughts or take-away’s? We saw the true highs and lows of humanity at our CSJ Day. It was difficult to hear about the depths to which people can sink and the hurt they can inflict on each other, but I was also reassured and invigorated by the many heroic and selfless individuals on the other side choosing every day to stand up to protect the innocent and vulnerable.