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By Ronjonette Harrison

A colleague recently shared an encouraging Buffalo News article by Lou Michel that ran Nov. 12 on Open Buffalo and its collaborative of agencies striving to foster change. The piece highlighted hopes to create a “restorative justice center” that would develop diversion programs for minor criminal offenses and empower people with the supports to develop self-sustaining, law-abiding lifestyles.

As a licensed clinical social worker at HEART (Helping Empower At Risk Teens), I applaud their efforts. For many youth who become court-involved, the costs are far-reaching and they have higher numbers of psychological disorders, family dysfunction and disconnection with community supports.

Over the past four years, I have managed the Crossroads program, a successful collaborative diversion program for court-involved youth in Erie County. Under the leadership and vision of Buffalo City Court Judge James A.W. McLeod, Crossroads has diverted more than 1,500 young adults from prison, which has resulted in a $9.6 million cost savings to New York State taxpayers.

While I’m proud of our accomplishments and independent evaluations that show we’re shifting the tide of recidivism, it’s simply not enough. So much more is needed. My hope is that concerted efforts will create a more robust system, broadening the bandwidth of supports.

New York continues to be the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes all youths as adults when they turn 16 years of age. A year ago, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman stated in his 2012 State of the Judiciary address, “The adult criminal justice system is simply not designed to address the special problems and needs of 16- and 17-year-olds.”

Recognizing that New York had fallen out of step with the rest of the nation, Lippman created seven pilot diversion programs, one in which HEART is the lead agency. This program embodies much of what this group aims to achieve.

While many individual organizations do important work, collectively we can tell a more powerful story. I encourage Open Buffalo and its affiliate agencies to become a collective voice and movement to help win legislative court reform. Collaborative thinking will design a broader network – a catalyst for change and call to action.

HEART has learned much serving this population and we look forward to sharing our best practices. Open Buffalo has our full support moving forward.

Ronjonette Harrison is executive director of HEART.