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Parolee to speak at sentencing reform hearing

A man who served 34 years in prison for killing three people in a 1973 home invasion in Buffalo on Monday will address a commission delegated to reform the state's sentencing system.

Gerald T. Balone, 54, who was paroled in August, will be the first speaker during the daylong session of the state Commission on Sentencing Reform, from 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m. Monday in the auditorium of the Central Library. Also scheduled to speak is Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark.

Balone, who earned five college degrees while behind bars, including a master's degree in theology, is expected to describe his goal of helping young people avoid the catastrophic mistakes he made in his life, according to John Caher, press aide for Denise E. O'Donnell, commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services.

O'Donnell is chairwoman of the commission that last month issued a preliminary report on ways to overhaul the state's sentencing laws for the first time in more than 40 years.

Clark was an assistant Erie County district attorney in the early 1970s when State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury, then a prosecutor, obtained the conviction against Balone, then 21.

O'Donnell, a Buffalo native, said the commission's review of sentencing laws showed a system that is "overly complex" and "Byzantine" -- a "system fraught with opportunities for injustice."

The panel is urging the state to give judges more leeway in sentences for more than 200 nonviolent felonies.

She said judges should be able to sentence addicts convicted of nonviolent drug felonies to community treatment instead of prison. The system, she added, needs more "graduated sanctions," including curfews, home confinement and electronic monitoring.

Such an approach, she said, would help end "the revolving door" of parole violators being returned to prison.

O'Donnell also believes new laws are needed to enhance the rights of crime victims, giving them "a meaningful voice in the criminal justice process."

Caher said the commission will be holding several more public hearings before releasing final recommendations and a report next year to the governor, State Legislature and court officials.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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