Criminal and Social Justice Day: 2022



"If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us."

-Francis Bacon


Buffalo has been dubbed the “City of Good Neighbors”, while this can be seen in the flock of people asking if you need help shoveling your car out, an unsuspecting place this moniker shines through is the city’s justice system. While this institution, just like any human-constructed system, is wrought with flaws and failings – humanity rests at the center of our Rust Belt justice system. After spending a day entrenched in the Queen City’s arena of law and order, one cannot deny that there are forces pushing our city towards a more equitable and just future. 


The day began with low rumble of coffee-talk, the buzz of anticipation, and a small amount of tension. Gathered at the Family Justice Center, 60-something leaders from across WNY geared up for an emotional and impactful day. Shortly after 8:30 am the room welcomed Sheriff Garcia in to start off this journey. The Sheriff spoke openly and freely about what his world has looked like since he stepped into this leadership position. He spoke to the dichotomy of his responsibility to all parties in his sphere, providing those being detained with programs and services while also creating a healthy and prosperous work environment for the officers under his employment. One of the reoccurring themes of his conversation was his lack of political drive. He laid out for the class his goals and they were entirely people centric. When he opened the floor to questions it was no holds barred, he did not shy away from difficult topics. Sheriff Garcia urged the class to continue to push for a better tomorrow and expressed his gratitude for their leadership and determination. 


Next the class split up into smaller groups to attend different types of courts in the city. Some attended criminal court, others drug court – the group I was a part of had the harrowing opportunity to sit in juvenile and family court.  Something to note is that all the other courts are open to the public, you can show up to court any day and be a part of the gallery. Juvenile court is the exception, this is a closed court room where nothing may be disclosed to the public. This is in an effort to truly provide the youth that enter this court the opportunity to turn their life around, their names aren’t in papers and their reputations remain intact. The Honorable Brenda M. Freedman opened her court up to Leadership Buffalo to provide a real behind the scenes look at how our justice system works with our youngest neighbors. Judge Freedman spoke candidly with us about the weight of her job; the future of our youth is not something she approaches with frivolity. While I am limited in what I can share about this experience, I will share the feeling. As we all left that courtroom, there was a heaviness in our cores, tears in our eyes, and empathy coursing through our hearts. What stood out the most was that no two things are exclusive. Each of these facets of life we cover in LB are so closely entwined. The only option for moving forward is holistic healing of our society. 


After a stop by the ceremonial court room for a debrief and a word from Administrative Judge, the Honorable Kevin Carter, the class made their way back to the Family Justice Center for lunch. Tables were full of lively discussion about the events of the morning. Groups shared what they witnessed and talked through the similarities and differences of each type of court. The overarching theme of lunch was “woah.”


Lunch was followed with a story from a member of the team at Family Justice Center, Ava. She was nothing short of effervescent, radiating joy and passion for the work she does every day. Ava shared her journey, one filled with terror, abuse, and vile acts – but the courage and perseverance that she has trumped all that evil. She spoke about the realities of domestic violence, how the system often makes it nearly impossible for survivors to receive justice, closure, or protection. Experiencing domestic violence can be isolating, which is why the Family Justice Center is here, to offer a hand in navigating the system. They offer services for anyone experiencing domestic abuse, truly a wrap-around service provider. The class received Ava and her story with open hearts and misty eyes. The level of awareness that her story brought will not only will have an impact on everyone in that room, but all of the people in their lives. No one should be put in a position where they are living in fear of someone that is supposed to love and care for them. With more conversations and advocacy, we can all move towards a place where the Ava’s of our community are never alone. A city where you have someone to reach out to no matter how dark things may get. A city where light prevails.  


After a short break, the class came back for a panel discussion surrounding the “School to Prison Pipeline.” The panel was comprised of BaBa Eng, Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo & Prisoners Are People Too, Chad Williams, CEO of DooProcess Inc., and Ken Colon, YOLO Director at the Buffalo Urban League. These incredible community leaders spoke on the rampant issues of racism and discrimination in our education and justice systems. BaBa Eng spoke to the realities that young men of color face on a daily basis, calling the class to action.  Often times the work that lies ahead can paralyze us, but BaBa reassured everyone that doing what they can, being a part of conversations, supporting and advocating is the right first step. BaBa, as well as Ken, were previously incarcerated and have since dedicated their time to ensuring that young kids stay out of prison and those incarcerated are given the proper services. Chad was a student at Buffalo State when he was wrongfully arrested, after months of fighting to clear his name he prevailed. Then going on to found a fashion line that’s proceeds go to a defense fund, the goal of which is “to raise awareness and achieve social justice.” Ken shared his story and why he believes in youth programs for those that the system has either rejected or ignored. His work with YOLO brings level of purpose and respect to these young people’s lives that they are not often afforded by society. All in all the panel got at the fact that while there is work to be done, there is hope. 


The day was rounded out with two speakers with a unique relationship, Cindi McEachon and Corey McCarthy. Cindi is the CEO of Peaceprints WNY, Corey is an entrepenuer and current Board Member  at Peaceprints, where we was formerly a resident. If you are not familiar with the work of Peaceprints, their website reads; “Peaceprints of WNY is an organization dedicated to providing reentry services for the previously incarcerated; it serves on the front lines of the social justice and racial equity movement existing to disrupt and put an end to the cycle of incarceration that plagues our region.” Cindi, a passionate and vibrant person, spoke with fervor about restorative justice practice. In reality the work that Cindi and the team at Peaceprints does is not radical, they just believe everyone should be treated like people. After Cindi spoke Corey stepped in to end the day. He simply told his story. To try and sum-up Corey’s heartfelt testimonial into a few sentences would be a great disservice to the humanity of that moment. What I can say is that fortitude and grace reside in his core, and he is a testament to the work of Peaceprints. 


This day was an emotionally taxing day for all involved, pushing everyone in the room to challenge their own perceptions and realities. Often these cathartic moments are what lead to lasting change, inspiring people to take action. This day began on one side of the story and finished on the other side, and after all, isn’t that what justice is about? Finding the truth somewhere in the middle? Or maybe it is about finding the truth in each aspect.