The Republican-controlled County Legislature has managed to marginalize a board meant to ensure the humane and professional treatment of prisoners in the county jails.
It has done so by removing those who led to the board’s creation and then making it difficult, if not impossible, for those members to ever regain a seat at the table.
As recently reported in The News, the changes in the selection of members of the Community Corrections Advisory Board could give the Sheriff’s Office, which is already represented on the board by Jail Superintendent Thomas Diina, a second voice on the board.
The board was empaneled in 2010 by the Legislature in response to community complaints over a number of suicides at the Erie County Holding Center and charges of abuse by jail guards. In the years since the commission was created, what seemed like a constant drumbeat of problems at the lockups has diminished. However, the need for proper oversight has not diminished, despite what the new majority on the Legislature believes.
Nan L. Haynes, chairwoman of the advisory board, has been vociferous in her complaints. She said the reconfiguration of the panel that was approved by the Legislature on April 10 effectively ensures that community representation on the board will be reduced while, at the same time, adding public officials who might be more inclined to protect the status quo. She’s right.
The Legislature voted to reduce the board from 15 to 13 members. The downsizing is suspect, given that this is a volunteer board and downsizing won’t produce any savings. Beyond that, changes in procedures for selecting the now 13 members will reduce community input.
Seven of the seats are filled by county officials. Four legislators – the chairman, the majority and minority leaders and the chairman of the Public Safety Committee – the county executive, the superintendent of the county’s Jail Management Division and the commissioner of health each make one recommendation.
The remaining recommendations will come from six out of 12 different entities or individuals. But which six will be able to make those recommendations has yet to be determined by lawmakers.
Haynes said that in the past, three separate community groups working on behalf of prisoners’ rights were each guaranteed the right to make a recommendation. That guarantee no longer applies, and those three groups will have to take their chances as the 12 groups jockey for seats.
Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the reconfiguration was meant to expand opportunities for community members to get on the board. But those expanded opportunities could easily have the effect, intended or not, of reducing input from community members who have done the most to bring about jail reforms.
Unless we hear otherwise from the Legislature, there is the woeful possibility that the sheriff could get his own pick for the board to join the choice of the sheriff’s Jail Management Division.
That would give the sheriff two seats at the table that was created in response to the mess at the jails he oversees. That’s a recipe for a return to the days of ignoring problems at the jails.