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New program offers a second chance for some young first offenders

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Aftermath of violent protests in Buffalo

A volunteer cleanup crew after protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at Hodge Liquor included Ashley Smith, the former director of the Elmwood Village Association.

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On May 30, 2020, the night that a Black Lives Matter protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis grew out of control in downtown Buffalo, some groups splintered off from the main demonstration and began looting businesses on the West Side and Elmwood Village.

A little after 10:30 p.m., several people broke through a glass window at the Hodge Wine & Liquor store on Elmwood Avenue, near West Utica Street. Among them was Daniel D. Hill, a 21-year-old from Kenmore, who was accused of entering the closed store and stealing some merchandise.

Hill was the only one arrested at the scene that night, and he was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment, second-degree riot and resisting arrest.

He faced up to seven years in prison if convicted on all the charges. Instead, Hill was allowed to participate in a new, year-long court diversion program that gives young, first-time offenders like Hill a chance to lower the charges against them.

Last week, Hill, now 24, successfully completed the program and now has just a misdemeanor – second-degree trespass – on his record. 

"A felony conviction – it's life-altering," said Erie County Court Judge Susan Eagan, who supervises the diversion program. "We're trying to give them a chance. They may have made a bad decision at a particular time. We want to keep that from defining the trajectory of their life forever."

Hill is the second person to complete the program, called U-CAN, which stands for United Against Crime Community Action Network. Three other defendants are participating in the program.

Here's how it works:

The program is a joint effort by Erie County Court, the District Attorney’s Office, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Erie County Probation Department, Peaceprints of WNY, Project Blue and volunteer mentors from the public. 

It targets young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who have been arrested on a non-violent felony or misdemeanor charge who have no prior record, but are deemed at risk of committing future crimes.

The offenders must plead guilty to a crime, but then can lessen that conviction – or even have it dismissed. They are teamed with a mentor and required to meet with that person once a week for an hour for a year. They also must report back to court regularly and receive counseling and referrals to services such as job training. 

District Attorney John J. Flynn said the program is similar to other diversion programs, such as drug court.

But instead of treatment for substance use disorders, the participants are young people who need some guidance.  

"They need help, life skills. Like how to get a job, how to keep a job. That kind of thing," Flynn said. "The point of this was to try to reach individuals who were falling through the cracks of the normal diversion courts and get them services that they need and having a mentor they can talk with and steer them in the right direction."

Eagan modeled the program after a similar effort in Cohoes, outside Albany, started by Andra Ackerman, an Albany County judge who was previously a Cohoes city court judge.

"She started it for the same reason I wanted to do this," Eagan said. "We see a number of offenders who come through the courts that need a little support and assistance, and if given that, we don't see them again."

That is the whole point, Eagan said.

The mentoring is a key part, she said. "That guidance – that's not punitive. We don't invade that relationship. We just want to know 'Are they meeting with you? Is it a productive?' I want it to be a safe space about the challenges they are having."

So far, the program seems to be going well – "Knock on wood," she said – with all five participants showing up regularly. Because it started during the Covid-19 pandemic, some meetings ended up being over the phone, Eagan said.

The program takes a lot more effort than a regular court case, she acknowledged.

"It is a bigger commitment on everyone's part," she said. However, it doesn't require extra funding. "We are utilizing all the resources that are available in a slightly different way. We are reimagining some of the roles and looking at it from a different perspective. There's no cost. The mentors are volunteers. Probation is here, anyway. We've just changed the angle that we're looking at."

Hill declined to be interviewed for the story. But his attorney, Brooke Meehan, praised the program.

"Not only did Mr. Hill get the benefit of a reduced plea," Meehan said, "the program also helped create a successful path for him moving forward."

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Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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