A broad-based religious organization drew about 300 people to a church in Clarence on Tuesday evening to call on Erie County government to reactivate a local parole board.
Erie County hasn’t had its own “conditional release commission” since its budget crisis of 2004-05. The group, VOICE-Buffalo, has over recent months been urging government leaders to impanel a commission as part of its campaign for “restorative justice.”
The event Tuesday in the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church drew a half-dozen county legislators from both sides of the aisle – enough to swing the Legislature if all of them supported the idea.
Also in attendance were aides to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, who supports the program, and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, whose jail management division runs the Holding Center in Buffalo and the County Correctional Facility in Alden.
Choirs united the gathering in music, prayer and powerful applause. And an array of pastors talked up the benefits of a program that would release eligible nonviolent inmates from the Correctional Facility weeks or months before their sentences are up if they agree to supervision and treatment for the problems that led them to jail in the first place.
“Restorative justice is really the process where we begin to heal humanity,” said the Rev. James E. Giles of Back to Basics Outreach Ministries of Buffalo, a leading force in the effort to urge county government to restore a release commission.
The event brought together Buffalo’s urban churchgoers with those in the suburbs to impress on county leaders that early release would benefit people whose lives can be redirected while also freeing up valuable cell space for truly dangerous offenders.
Among those who could benefit are the hundreds of inmates who reach the county’s prison every year because of untreated mental illnesses. Nationwide, mentally ill people make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all inmates.
People with mental illness and nonviolent criminal histories could be steered into treatment as a condition of their release through Erie County’s program.
In a letter read to the crowd, Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo called the local release commission “a modest first step in reforming our region’s broken criminal justice system.”
VOICE-Buffalo says a conditional release commission can be revived with an investment of about $90,000 a year, the cost of salary and benefits for a probation officer who would supervise the approximately 25 former inmates who would be in the program at any one time.
The source of that money is one of the questions being examined by county officials as they discuss whether to reactivate a commission.