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Mark G. Farrell, 72, Amherst town judge who ran innovative therapeutic courts

June 27, 1947 — Aug. 26, 2019

In 1996, Amherst Town Justice Mark G. Farrell established the nation's first suburban drug court, followed a year later by the first domestic violence court in Erie County. In 2001, he began the first gambling treatment court in the country, and in 2009, he began a court for combat veterans.

In these four innovative therapeutic courts in the Town of Amherst, Justice Farrell exercised the leverage he had as a judge to require defendants to get treatment in order to stay out of jail.

"He had a passion to help people who were struggling with addiction lead productive lives," said Susan Grelick, who was Amherst town supervisor from 1997 to 2005.

"Those specialized courts that he created were models for other municipalities throughout the country," said Grelick, who called the judge a "trailblazer."

Hon. Mark G. Farrell, 72, died Aug. 26, in his Amherst home after an illness of two years.

He was born in the Town of Tonawanda, the only child of James J. and Mary Kelly Farrell.

He attended Calasanctius, then graduated from Kenmore East Senior High School in 1965 and from the University at Buffalo in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in history.

A member of Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps as an undergraduate, he joined the Air Force in 1973. He was promoted to captain and served as area defense counsel in the judge advocate office on Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss. He was discharged in September 1974 to return home to assist his widowed mother, who was ill.

He met Carolyn Dachs at a UB Law School social, and they married on Aug. 26, 1972, in St. James Church in Buffalo.

He was elected to Amherst Town Court in 1993 and soon became an innovator. He worked with the local treatment community to motivate defendants who were facing charges.

Drug Court was followed by the first Domestic Violence Court in Erie County and a Therapeutic Gambling Treatment Court in 2002.

"Getting a pathological or compulsive gambler to admit their problem is tougher than getting them to admit they're a heroin addict," Justice Farrell said at the time.

In 2009, Justice Farrell began a therapeutic court to address the specialized needs of combat veterans.

"He always talked about treating the disease rather than treating the crime, because he wanted to have an impact on the lives of people and their families," said Matthew Bonavita, a son-in-law.

When out in public, the judge was frequently approached by people who had appeared before him in town court or accompanied a relative who did so.

"They would say, 'I just want you to know you changed my life,' or 'You saved my son's life, or my daughter's life,' " said Carolyn M. Farrell, the judge's wife.

The graduations from Justice Farrell's therapeutic courts were filled with tears and smiles, his son-in-law said. The courts "didn't just change their lives, they changed their whole families' lives, too," Bonavita said. "That was my father-in-law's true legacy. Instead of going to jail, they fought a disease and they conquered it."

Justice Farrell took a stand in 2002, when he spoke out publicly about the inappropriate influence of partisan politics in judicial campaigns. During his unsuccessful 1999 campaign for State Supreme Court, Justice Farrell was pressured to make phone calls and a donation to the committee of county Democratic Party Chairman G. Steven Pigeon in order to be considered for an endorsement.

Justice Farrell called on the state Commission on Judicial Conduct to investigate the inappropriate political pressure. Instead, in 2004, the state commission admonished Justice Farrell himself.

In an editorial, The Buffalo News said the panel unjustly "slapped the wrist of the whistleblower." Justice Farrell was widely hailed for speaking out, and later said, "It needed to be done."

After retiring from Amherst Town Court in 2013, he worked as a consultant and mediator and traveled internationally to share his expertise on specialized courts.

He was active in many organizations, serving as president of the UB Alumni Association and on the board of directors of the Judges and Police Executives Conference of Erie County and the National Council on Problem Gambling.

In 2007, Justice Farrell served on a state commission to recommend changes to the state court system. The same year, he became president of the 2,200-member New York State Magistrates Association.

Justice Farrell collected many accolades. He was named Jurist of the Year in 2002 by the Judges and Police Executives Conference of Erie County. In 2009, he won the Eugene W. Salisbury Magistrate of the Year Award from the state Magistrates Association.

Besides his wife of 47 years, Carolyn M. Farrell, he is survived by three daughters, Lara M. Hitchcock, Kristen A. Bonavita and Melissa G. Swank; six grandchildren; and nieces, nephews and cousins.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Joseph University Roman Catholic Church, 3269 Main St.

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