Harnessing a passion for criminal justice reform

A chance encounter in a grocery store aisle opened a door to community service for UB School of Law student Simone Grande ’22, and now that work has been recognized by the Bar Association of Erie County.

Simone Grande.

Simone Grande '22

In the midst of last year’s national reckoning over race and policing, Grande, a former paralegal who will enter her third year of law school this fall, ran into her mentor, Samantha I.V. White ’08. White is an attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and co-chairs the Minority Bar Association of Western New York’s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.  She invited Grande to participate. The task force, comprised of several community leaders, works to reform criminal system laws and practices that discriminate and oppress historically marginalized communities. Many of the task force’s proposed reforms focus particularly on holding the Buffalo Police Department accountable for its practices.

The only student on the task force, Grande has thrown herself into the work. “I’ve never been part of a team that is so active,” she says. “Someone will bring in an idea, and everybody rolls up their sleeves. Everyone is contributing.”

For her part, Grande has helped set up a news conference around the issue of whether police officers should be allowed to cover their badge numbers. “We thought that was not a good move for community policing,” Grande says. She also took on a major research project responding to concerns about how police vehicles move within the city when responding to calls, sometimes speeding through residential areas without emergency lights. “I did legal research, read the traffic laws, and read the BPD manual to see how they’re supposed to respond. That was really eye-opening,” she says.

In another project, Grande is reviewing laws in other states regarding the use of testimony from jailhouse informants. In New York, she says, such testimony is often used to help win a conviction even without accompanying evidence. “We think that’s unfair,” she says. “We’re putting together a proposal to amend the law, to require more evidence when a jailhouse informant is alleging someone is doing something unlawful.. … We pick apart these things and ask, how is this law really being used? Is it for the benefit of the citizens or is it actually used to target folks.”

The Bar Association of Erie County has recognized the efforts of the task force with its Liberty Bell Award. The award, established in 1964, recognizes community service that has strengthened the American system of freedom under the law and acknowledges outstanding contributions to the effective functioning of our institutions of government. It was presented in late April as part of the association’s annual Law Day celebration.

“Simone stands out for her passion and commitment to criminal justice reform,” says Professor Alexandra Harrington, who also serves on the task force. “It’s truly impressive, the ways she’s been thinking about these issues. She’s thoughtful and analytical—ready to dive in and figure out how she can contribute.”

The focus of the task force dovetails with Harrington’s own work as director of the School of Law’s Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic, in which Grande participated as a student attorney this past semester. “I’m grateful to learn from my fellow task force members,” Harrington says. “The task force is chaired by individuals who have worked tremendously hard to develop and support a number of concrete, thoughtful and much-needed criminal system reforms. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

The work won’t be done any time soon, but for Grande, the time is ripe for effecting real change. Last year’s high-profile police killings, she says, produced “a lot of anger, but also some relief in that people were finally catching on to these issues that we believed and knew to be true. We’ve got the world’s attention, so let’s really make this count and make lasting changes.”