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Buffalo's new U.S. Attorney shares thoughts on 'reckoning' for criminal justice system, including attitudes toward incarceration

U.S. Attorney Trini Ross
Mike Desmond
Trini Ross, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, in her Buffalo office.

It was nearly two months ago when Trini Ross took the reins as the new U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York. As she’s explaining, the reckoning is continuing in the criminal justice system, as some of its basic tenets are examined, like sending people away to long prison sentences and forgetting them.

Ross has spent most of her legal career as an assistant U.S. attorney. Now, she's leading the office, responsible for 17 counties and cities including Buffalo and Rochester. Her new office is on the sixth floor of a nondescript office building in downtown Buffalo, a corner office with a nice view out toward Lake Erie.

She met with news reporters individually to explain the views she's applying locally, based on her own career, from a local kid at Hutch Tech High School to a major figure in the federal inspector general system. That included working her way up in the office she's running, giving her an insider's view of how it works. Now, Ross says she believes in consequences for crimes, but there has to be a really long-term look at what to do.

“Consequences sometimes are incarceration. But we're looking at, at the same time, what we can do for that individual, whether our pending case and post-sentence,” she said. “Usually, when they go to federal prison they are given some sort of program that they need. That's important too. That's very important because those individuals are going to come back out into society and be part of our community and we want them to be the best person they can be when that happens.”

Ross says it's part of the reckoning of the justice system since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis cops and it potentially requires more resources to change the way the system deals with individuals from arrest to walking out of that prison door. It means triage for those entering the system, looking for those who can take the assistance offered to possibly turn their lives around and planning post-prison for those who go to prison.

The U.S. Attorney is probably most visible when something happens involving criminal law and these days criminal justice, as attitudes and facts change. Ross says she remembers seeing names of people she knew on criminal justice paperwork and that's reflected in her attitudes.

“Social justice issues, people looking at the disparity in the criminal justice system. Those are people to me who I knew, who I know, whether friends or family members and I look at all of this from the perspective of my life experiences,” she said.

Ross’ other previous experience includes several years in Washington for the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General. In addition to Hutch Tech, she also graduated from Fredonia State College, Rutgers University and the University at Buffalo School of Law.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.