Erie County Jails, The Saga Continues

18 May

After a two year long debate about the rash of suicides at the Erie County jails, the lawsuits from the federal government, multiple escapes, a rapist being let free on accident, the failure to follow basic guidelines for prisoner safety and treatment, the willful mismanagement of the organization by an unaccountable and incompetent Sheriff and the legal shenanigans of the Erie County Attorney, the Erie County Legislature is ready to tackle the problem.

With a citizen’s advisory panel.  Well, dueling proposals for a citizen’s advisory panel.

The first proposal was sponsored by Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Christina Bove and co-sponsored by Legislators Kozub, Miller-Williams, Dixon, Mills and Kennedy.  It is Local Law 4-1 (2010), here’s a summary:

It is the intent of the Legislature to establish the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board (the “Advisory Board” or the “Board”) for the purpose of reviewing the corrections facilities programs and services to offer suggestions and advice for the improvement of such programs; and further to allow an additional forum for public comment with regards to matters at the Erie County Correctional Facility and the Erie County Holding Center.

An Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board shall be created consisting of nine (9) members.

The Advisory Board shall have seven voting members appointed as follows, one each by the Chair of the Erie County Legislature, Majority Leader, Minority Leader, Chair of the Public Safety Committee, Erie County Executive, Chief Judge of the Buffalo City Court and Senior County Judge for Erie County. The Advisory Board will also have two Non-Voting Members. The Advisory Board shall also have two ex-officio non-voting members appointed by the Erie County Attorney and Erie County Sheriff.

The Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board functions in an advisory capacity to the Erie County Legislature as well as to the Sheriff and the Administration of Erie County. They may undertake functions and activities intended to provide advice and suggestions to improve programs and functions, allow public comment, make formal recommendations to the County Legislature and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on programs and services, recommend funding for the Correctional Facilities in Erie County and receive complaints from the public and refer such complaints to the proper official in the Erie County Sheriff’s Office for investigation and report back to the Advisory Board.

The second proposal was sponsored by Majority Leader Maria Whyte and co-sponsored by Legislators Grant, Mazur, Kozub, Loughran and Marinelli.  Here’s a summary:

RESOLVED, that the Erie County Legislature, per authority granted to it by County Charter, Section 2305, “to better fulfill the purposes responsibilities and goals of each department of the county,” create a Citizens’ Advisory Board for the Holding Center and Correctional Facility; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the Citizens’ Advisory Board shall consist of 15 members, with one member designated by each of the following: the County Executive, the County Legislature (by a nominating petition containing the signatures of a simple majority of Legislators), the County Sheriff, Teamster’s Local 264 (union that represents Sheriff’s deputies), CSEA (union that represents corrections’ officers and janitorial staff), Network of Religious Communities, Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition, Prisoners are People Too, Coalition for Economic Justice, Legal Aid Bureau, Erie County Medical Society, National Alliance on Mental Illness, University at Buffalo Law School Human Rights Center, NAACP, and Hispanics United of Buffalo.

The debate during a public hearing yesterday was robust and demonstrated (yet again) the fault lines across the Erie County Democratic Party.

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Aside from the size and makeup of the committees, they are essentially serving the same purposes as outlined by state law.  This isn’t an issue of funding, or expense or any of the common objections, it’s about which voices are feeding back into the system.  Under Bove’s proposed law, the board will essentially consist of the typical politicized voices found in county government, friends and patronage hangers-on (even though it’s unpaid).  Whyte’s proposal reaches further into the community to align a more diverse array of voices, including those who work on behalf of prisoners and their families.

However, is an advisory panel even necessary? Legislator Ray Walter doesn’t think so, “Considering the State Commission of Correction already has oversight of the county’s correctional facilities, it seems redundant to me.” His opinion was shared by Legislator Hardwick, “I don’t favor either of the competing proposals at this time. I’d prefer to wait for the federal and state governments to complete their investigations before we move on the creation of another advisory board.”

It’s clear that the problems in Erie County Correctional Facilities currently exceed the capabilities of the Erie County Sheriff, but enacting an oversight authority which lacks subpoena power might not be the best step.   Isn’t the legislature technically the “advisory panel” for oversight of the correctional facilities?

If they are, the desire to establish an unpaid advisory board is a tacit admission from the legislature that the problems exceed their grasp. If all factions of the majority agree that an advisory panel is necessary to manage the correctional facilities, should we not focus on building a panel which includes experts on the subject matter as well as the community writ large? Isn’t it pointless to staff the panel with politically connected friends and party apparatchiks?

Legislator Whyte, “The Advisory Board which we have called for would allow mental health professionals, addiction specialists, and other human rights organizations to make recommendations to lawmakers regarding jail practices and policies. Currently, other Legislators have introduced a disappointing Local Law also calling for an Advisory Board. Both the composition of this Board and its oversight powers are problematic and, in my opinion, are like a fox guarding the chicken coop. This Local Law (proposed by Legislator Bove) is NOT meaningful reform.

There will be a public hearing on the local law in the Erie County Legislature chambers (Old County Hall, 92 Franklin Street, 4th Floor) today at 5PM.

The Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition will be holding a public forum in the Erie County Legislature Conference Room (Old County Hall, 92 Franklin Street, 4th Floor) at 3:30PM prior to the public hearing.

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