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‘Peace hubs’ aim to save kids from crime stigma

Police often complain that they don’t get enough cooperation from Buffalo residents.

Residents – especially young people – complain that police harass them for no reason, undermining cooperation and stigmatizing them with “crimes” that youth elsewhere never get arrested for.

Some of the same groups that have tried to bridge that divide now have an even better idea: short-circuit it.

VOICE-Buffalo’s effort to create “peace hubs” in churches, mosques, synagogues and other neighborhood anchors could resolve low-level conflicts before they ever reach police. It’s part of a “restorative justice” effort to turn around wayward youth before they get ensnared in a criminal-justice system staffed by many who don’t understand the neighborhoods they patrol or the young people they prosecute.

It’s not an effort to coddle criminals; it’s an effort to save kids.

“If a young man throws a rock through a window, do we really want to criminalize this kid?” asks Pastor James Giles, vice president of VOICE-Buffalo and president of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries.

Honest answer: It depends on which community the kid lives in.

That’s what this initiative can change, using mediation, restitution and community services to bring together victims and offenders – or anyone engaged in conflict – to work out disputes and get the community involved in solving its own problems.

In some ways, it’s a throwback to the days when, if a kid did something wrong, he got chastised twice: first by the neighbor who caught him, then again when he got home. The community wasn’t afraid of its young people and cared enough about them – all of them, not just relatives – to intervene early enough to keep them on track.

If successful, the peace hubs could again give city kids the type of guidance and support suburban kids routinely get to keep them out of the prison pipeline when they do stupid things.

The effort also could lighten law enforcement’s load. Organizers fear that police – some of whom still see a young black or Hispanic with baggy pants and reflexively think “criminal in training” – may not be entirely on board as they roll out the concept at a public meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 in Elim Christian Fellowship, 70 Chalmers Ave.

A spokesman said that Buffalo police will be at the meeting but that – as with any new initiative – they want to study the potential impact on public safety.

But whether or not police get “fully engaged,” there are enough neighborhood disputes to keep the peace hubs busy, said the Rev. Dan Schifeling, retired co-pastor of Church of the Nativity in the Town of Tonawanda.

Teams trained in restorative justice and community organizing will staff the sites in this urban-suburban coalition. The organization also is working to restore the county’s “conditional release” program that offers certain low-level, nonviolent offenders treatment and training instead of prison.

VOICE-Buffalo describes current policies as “punitive, discriminatory and non-rehabilitative.” Another word would be “dumb.” We can’t keep criminalizing kids who could be saved, or keep wasting the talent they represent.

Changing the attitudes of some police and prosecutors will take time; diverting kids away from them won’t.