Minorities account for the majority of arrests and prison sentences in Erie County, and part of that is because whites are more likely to catch a break and go free if they are caught committing a minor transgression, according to a study by Open Buffalo, a group of local nonprofit agencies.
The collaboration of agencies and VOICE Buffalo, a group that takes up social injustices, wants to change that by creating a “restorative justice center” that would allow those who run afoul of the law to sidestep the criminal justice system, at least initially, and receive a variety of services that would help them become law-abiding citizens and make amends to their victims.
The study, which was released Tuesday, found that though 14 percent of the county’s residents are African-American, 43 percent of the people arrested are black and 65 percent of prison sentences issued are given to black defendants. Hispanics, who account for 4.7 percent of the county’s population, total 7 percent of arrests and 9.1 percent of prison sentences.
“For certain charges, the figures are even more extreme. For example, African-Americans account for 69.2 percent of misdemeanor arrests for possession of marijuana – despite the fact that African-Americans are no more likely to use marijuana than whites,” according to an overview of the study.
The restorative justice center would include a number of services, ranging from drug and alcohol counseling to conflict resolution training, according to Rev. James E. Giles, president and chief executive officer of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries Inc.
The Back to Basics Outreach Ministries was one of the groups involved in the study, which was inspired by the book by Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
“In the suburbs, you can get quite a number of breaks, whereas it is not the same in the urban community,” Giles said. “We’d like to see the police not put individuals into the punishment end of the criminal justice system, and that is why we are advocating for a restorative justice center for offenses like marijuana and trespass, where there would be treatment.”
There also would be accountability.
If the individual violated conditions of the help he was receiving, he would be held accountable, and if it continued, the case would be placed in the criminal justice system, Giles said. He noted that the diversion would be for minor cases and, as a benefit, would preserve space in jails for more serious offenders.
“That would reduce overcrowding in those jails and overcrowding in the courtrooms,” he said.
Another aspect of the restorative justice approach would involve reconciliation between the perpetrator and the victim to “create a culture of peace,” according to Victoria Ross of the Peace Education Project.
The center could be modeled after a program already running in Seattle, according to Sam Magavern of the Partnership for the Public Good.
“Every other day, police there take individuals to the diversion program instead of booking them, but it isn’t working because the police would rather take individuals to the diversion program every day,” Magavern said of how police have embraced the alternative.
Magavern said he attended a conference last week in New York City that detailed the Seattle program and that Buffalo Deputy Police Commissioner Charles Tomaszewski was there gathering information. Open Buffalo sees Tomaszewski’s attendance as an indication that the Brown administration may be open to an alternative program.
But it will take more than just a center to help people who get in trouble, according to officials from several organization who gathered Tuesday to unveil the study’s findings. Breaking down walls of segregation, improving schools so more high school students graduate on time, and increasing economic opportunities for those living in poverty will be needed to halt the disproportionate numbers of minorities who end up in the criminal justice system.
“The key is persistence. It has to be ongoing, and the hard questions need to be addressed,” said Chuck Culhane of the Western New York Peace Center. “There’s segregation in Buffalo, and there is segregation in our minds. We have to overcome that.”
Giles vowed that the findings of the study and hopes for a restorative justice center would not end with Tuesday’s news conference and that the organizations involved will persist on different fronts.
To that end, a major community event serving as a “symbol of unity” is set for May 17. “Hands Across Buffalo” will involve people holding hands in a line that will begin on East Ferry Street at Bailey Avenue and continue west to all the way to the Niagara River.
Other groups collaborating in the study include the Buffalo Branch of the NAACP, the Center for Employment Opportunities, the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, PUSH Buffalo, Prisoners Are People Too, Citizen Action of Western New York and Buffalo Peacemakers.