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A state work-release facility in Williamsville?

Sound ridiculous?

No doubt some residents protesting plans for such a prison in a former motel on Main Street near Michigan in the heart of Buffalo think so. In fact, one went so far as to suggest that suburban location at one of the recent meetings about the controversial project.

Needless to say, the alternative was not followed up on. It was more a commentary on the process -- and its perceived unfairness -- than a serious suggestion.

But the comment raised a question about any facility that's supposed to do a societal good but which few people want in their backyard: Who should bear whatever social costs are involved?

Should it be communities at the top of the pecking order that have fared best and therefore can most afford to give something back by absorbing such a facility? Or should it fall to communities further down the ladder, ones that might be less able to absorb such facilities but that also might be less able to block them?

There is no doubt the work-release facility planned for the former Mohawk Manor motel would serve a useful purpose. The halfway house would be home to about 50 inmates who are within six months of being up for parole. They would work in the community during the day and live in the home, under state supervision, at night.

The state has 10 such facilities, but the closest is in Rochester. The Buffalo area should have its own. It's a progressive effort to ease inmates' transition back into society, helping insure that they turn their lives around rather than turning around to victimize residents again.

But many in the Linwood-Oxford area around the site feel they're getting victimized enough as it is. One woman talks of returning home to find a stranger in the shadows in a corner with a baseball bat. Another tells of wallets taken from the kitchen table. And others recite a long litany of similar incidents that people in other neighborhoods never have to put up with.

Against that backdrop, maybe it's time for a different approach. Maybe it's time that, rather than swooping down on these types of neighborhoods as the first choice for unwanted proposals, government adopt a new rule: Start at the top of the social ladder when looking for a host.

Granted, land might cost a little more. But it would be worth it to let those at the top of the community totem pole set an example by being the first to accept far-sighted projects that benefit all. And if those communities won't accept them, why should anyone else?

A state corrections spokesman said there's no pattern to where such facilities are located and the only criterion is available space. No doubt there are a few other critical factors, such as access to transit routes and potential employers. But all of those things can be found throughout greater Buffalo.

If society is to take a risk -- however small -- to benefit from a seemingly enlightened attempt, it should be in a neighborhood better able to bear the cost of both the facility itself and lack of whatever else might rise in its place.

Such an approach might also offer a better environment for the parolees, a point not missed by Lin-Ox residents who question how plunking prisoners down in the midst of more drugs and crime can be conducive to rehabilitation.

Of course, some in the community favor the program. They see it as an attempt to transform a criminal hangout into something more positive, or note it will bring loved ones closer to home as they try to straighten out their lives.

But the neighborhood's choice should not be a halfway house or nothing at all. There's no reason something more beneficial to the residents already living around Mohawk Manor can't be built, if that's what the neighborhood wants. And there's no reason this program can't be made convenient for relatives even if located elsewhere in the area.

With Buffalo cops telling residents complaining of crime that the solution is to move, the inner city should not always be the first option for this type of facility, when so many other types of programs are needed.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer.

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