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Another Voice: Restorative justice initiative could help improve individuals and communities

By James Giles

The City of Buffalo and its surrounding communities have suffered from long-term systemic injustices in the educational system, employment and the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, racial inequity is at the heart of injustices that are embedded in the very fabric of these systems. That inequity is especially damaging, since navigating and accessing services and resources from these systems are critically important for educational and economic success.

When individuals are denied these opportunities, it not only negatively impacts their lives and the well-being of their families, but it also holds back development and progress for the entire city and county.

Restorative justice is a strategy to help heal the negative outcomes of these injustices. It develops relationships between those who control and operate systems and community members who depend on those systems. If this relationship can be strengthened, those members of the community can move from a state of dependency to becoming positive contributors.

A key restorative justice initiative in Buffalo and Erie County is the re-establishment of the Erie County Conditional Release Commission. This commission will grant release to eligible prisoners held in the county jail, under extended supervision by probation officers.

Erie County had such a commission from 1992 to 2005, when it was eliminated in a misguided attempt to save money. This past year, the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board recommended that the County Legislature re-establish this commission.

The program will result in considerable savings to taxpayers. It is my fervent hope that the good work under way will make it possible to restore the Conditional Release Commission in the current year.

The Conditional Release Commission is part of a broader effort to establish restorative justice practices, such as “peace circles,” which are strategies to help resolve conflicts and issues with the direct participation of affected parties. Those parties may be offenders and victims or may be persons and groups locked in sharply opposing positions. Peace circles can also bring together leaders of systems with community members who do not feel fairly treated by those systems. Together they can act to benefit both parties. Resulting changes in the policies and practices of those systems can begin to heal injustices and help to restore the community’s faith in those systems.

If you would like to know more about restorative justice, VOICE Buffalo, with its more than 40 member congregations and community partners, is sponsoring a public meeting from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Elim Christian Fellowship, 70 Chalmers St., Buffalo.

Pastor James Giles is president and CEO of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries and is vice president of VOICE Buffalo.