Momentum is building toward a program to release nonviolent inmates, especially those with mental illnesses, from the Erie County Correctional Facility weeks or months before their sentence is up.
The advocates say taxpayers would benefit in two ways: It would open valuable cells for dangerous criminals. And because the freed inmates must participate in counseling and treatment regimens, they would become less likely to again burden the criminal-justice system.
VOICE-Buffalo, the faith-based community betterment group that is pushing for a “conditional release” program, hopes 500 people or more display their support at a gathering set for 7 p.m. June 10 at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, 4385 Harris Hill Road at Main Street, Clarence.
Erie County ran a successful “conditional release commission” for years after a state law in 1989 called on counties to form one. But the commission was swallowed up by the county budget crisis of 2004-05 and never seen again.
The Community Corrections Advisory Board – volunteers and county officials focused on conditions at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden – has called for the return of a conditional release commission. Voting with the majority last year was Jail Management Superintendent Thomas Diina, who has a seat on the advisory board.
VOICE-Buffalo took up the cause as part of its broad campaign for “restorative justice.” Among its activists is the Rev. James Giles, chief executive officer at Buffalo’s Back to Basics Outreach Ministries, which helps state prison inmates return to society. Giles said the commission could release, among others, mentally ill inmates and military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and insist they participate in treatment programs and report to a probation officer.
For years, the small percentage of people with serious mental illnesses who don’t understand that they are sick, resist medications and commit crimes have been landing in jail cells, both in Erie County and across the country. Jail officials nationwide complain they lack the skills and resources to help those inmates and say that those held on minor crimes belong in hospitals or treatment centers, not cells.
“Talk about cruel and inhumane,” Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace told The Buffalo News for a special report in December about how local jails and state prisons have become the nation’s de facto mental hospitals. “... A treatment facility is much more appropriate,” Gerace said.
In Erie County, mental-health courts and a veterans court work to address the needs of those types of defendants. Still, a third or more of all local inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Their rate of return to jail is high if they go without medications and oversight on the outside.
“Some of the people who may have a mental-health diagnosis, and the veterans who may have a PTSD diagnosis, may be in jail simply because they keep repeating the cycle,” Giles said. “We would like to have those as ideal candidates for us to work with to get them out of the cycle of going back and forth to prison.”
New York sends defendants sentenced to one year or less behind bars to county facilities. Like in the state system, one out of every three days of a sentence can be waived for good behavior, so a one-year sentence will often fall to eight months.
The VOICE-Buffalo team envisions a program that assesses inmates who serve some measure of time in the prison: at least three months, as the state law required after some revisions in the last decade, or perhaps as much as six months. Further, the conditional release commission would assess only inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. The sentencing judge, the district attorney and the victim would be consulted. If released, the inmate would be overseen by a county probation officer for up to a year.
In some ways, the conditional release commission would act much like a state parole board acts in assessing state prison inmates for early release. Parole commissioners review the inmate’s path back into society and order them to report to a parole officer. VOICE-Buffalo says local inmates will have to convince the county commission that releasing them early does not “deprecate the seriousness of their crime,” a standard similar to what is employed for other inmates.
“Only prisoners convicted of relatively minor offenses who have verifiable ties to our community are eligible, while those convicted of any serious crime, including crimes of domestic violence, are ineligible,” VOICE-Buffalo said in a statement.
Though Erie County’s first conditional release commission sprang to life in 1992, no one can find evidence that the County Legislature approved the local law required for it to operate. VOICE-Buffalo organizers are approaching county lawmakers, especially those in the Republican bloc that currently controls the Legislature, to enlist their support for a bill.
One of the officials whose support is crucial has been slow to come around. County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz initially balked at meeting with the commission’s advocates. About 30 people connected with VOICE-Buffalo then swamped his office until he agreed to meet.
Poloncarz told the advocates he thought the people of Erie County don’t necessarily want prison reforms and that they maintain a strict view on law enforcement matters. But Poloncarz has since signaled that he backs their efforts and will send a representative to the meeting in Clarence on June 10. He has asked the proponents to find the source of money that would help make the reform program possible.
VOICE-Buffalo estimates the program will need about $92,000 a year – to pay the wages and benefits of a new probation officer to supervise inmates released early. VOICE-Buffalo figures that, as in the past, just one new officer can do the job because the number of inmates in the program would be capped at 25 at any one time.
VOICE-Buffalo and the Community Corrections Advisory Board suggest the money come from the revenue generated when local inmates pay a premium to place a telephone call. State prisons spend telephone money on inmate-betterment programs, but the state does not place the same restriction on the telephone revenue that rolls into county jails. Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard in recent years used telephone revenue for office furniture, sheriff’s vehicles and other items that appear to have little to do with inmate welfare, according to a county audit completed in 2012.
“VOICE-Buffalo is very aggressive on some of the things they are doing,” said Thomas P. Amodeo, the supervising judge for Buffalo City Court, who over the years has taken part in studies into alternatives to incarceration and ways to ease crowding at the Holding Center.
Though judges can sentence defendants to probation and treatment programs, Amodeo sees a conditional release commission as another step “toward keeping our jails a little less crowded than they are” while “making sure there is some supervision on the outside.” He added that the local commission must be able to return those who do not follow the rules to jail.