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Plan gives mentally ill option to jail 2002 death of inmate, cost motivate proposal

By wandering naked down a West Side street, 28-year-old Michael T. Bennett won a spell of captivity that ended with his death after three days in the Erie County Holding Center.

Bennett's death, in turn, triggered a debate over whether he should have been placed in a mental hospital instead.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra cites that case from 2002 as one reason why officials should, over time, transfer inmates from county lockups into a system his officials are developing. Giambra's other reason is cost.

Each day, Erie County holds about 375 inmates with mental health problems, and about 275 are jailed on misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Those inmates are generally poor, homeless, or sometimes both.

Without resources to post bail and with few other places for them to be monitored, they are locked up at an average cost of $100 a day, typically for 30 days, according to a county report.

They repeat the experience three or four times a year.

The county's proposal would work like this: 100 of those 275 inmates could be housed in four residential units run by the Restoration Society and the Lakeshore Behavioral Health Corp., two not-for-profits already in the treatment business. Each person would have a small living space, and the facilities would run along the guidelines of the federal government's Safe Haven supportive housing program, addressing people with mental health problems.

Those 100, and the other 175, who would sleep in their own homes or in the community's other psychiatric units, would be treated at Erie County Medical Center by staff from the hospital and the state University at Buffalo Medical School's Department of Psychiatry. The staff would include an employment counselor and county probation officers with training in behavioral therapy.

The proposal emerged from the county's Holding Center Task Force, which studies ways to alleviate jail crowding, reduce overtime paid to corrections officers and avoid construction of a new jail or new jail space. The researchers modeled the county's idea on a program in Boulder, Colo.

"It has shown a significant reduction in the days that individuals spend in the holding center or jail," said Philip R. Endress, the county's mental health commissioner. "I believe there was a 65 percent reduction in the recidivism rate for the folks that are enrolled."

In theory, the Erie County program would yield benefits beyond those provided by Buffalo's specialty courts -- drug court and mental health court.

"I very much favor there being increased access to mental health treatment facilities and that law enforcement personnel be trained to recognize such individuals very early," said Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.

But he is not as optimistic as Giambra when it comes to the long-term savings of a mental health program.

While Giambra thinks it could lower the millions of dollars paid in overtime to corrections officers each year, Howard says it probably won't. "The loss of these people might not reduce our staffing levels," he said. "But they might help us avoid having to build additional jail space."

While Giambra figures he will save county taxpayers money by getting people with mental health issues out of county lockups, the program will still require taxpayer money, $16 million to start it up. But he wants those millions to come through Albany and Washington.

His officials will request $9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build the four 25-bed units, and they'll ask state government for the remaining $7 million needed for the treatment program at ECMC, to operate the housing, and for construction aid.

Giambra put that $7 million on the wish list he has given local state lawmakers.

County leaders have no shortage of ideas on how Albany can help after state legislators demanded the county share another $12.5 million in sales tax income in 2007. The request also is signed by County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz and Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda.
State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, supports the proposal and has contacted the state Department of Correctional Services and the state's mental health commissioner for their help in making it become reality, an aide said. "We are going to do our best to secure money to help the county with this," said Craig Miller.

Bennett, a diagnosed schizophrenic, died from traumatic asphyxia when at least eight deputies tried to restrain him in the holding center in July 2002.

"Had Bennett been afforded adequate emergency mental health care or been the subject of a properly supervised and controlled use of physical force, his death may have been prevented," a state Commission of Correction report said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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