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Local parole board may be revived to conditionally release nonviolent inmates

It looks like Erie County next year will reactivate a “conditional release commission,” a local parole board that will determine which county Correctional Facility inmates can be freed before their sentences expire.

VOICE-Buffalo, a faith group lobbying to revive the commission, has patched together commitments for $150,000 to support the program’s first year: $90,000 is expected from the Oishei Foundation and $60,000 from county government, including $27,000 from the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the correctional facility, said the Rev. Daniel J. Schifeling, who is active in VOICE-Buffalo.

The money will pay the wages and benefits for a probation officer and an assistant, who will supervise the approximately 25 nonviolent inmates in the program at any one time.

The county’s Probation Department is expected to request the money from the Oishei Foundation. Oishei has signaled an intent to provide it, as long as county government chips in as well, an official there said.

Further, the Oishei Foundation expects the county to eventually take over full financial support, assuming the conditional release commission is successful next year and in future years.

“In concept and in theory, we support the initiative,” said Lawrence Cook, Oishei’s senior program officer, who said that while it’s unusual for the foundation to give money to a government, it supports several agencies that work to reform former offenders.

Erie County operated a conditional release commission from 1992 until the mass employee layoffs that came with the county budget crisis of 2004-05. In recent years, the county’s Community Corrections Advisory Board urged that the commission be re-created, and VOICE-Buffalo followed that by appealing to key government leaders and hunting for the financing.

VOICE-Buffalo sees the conditional release program as integral to its long-term campaign for “restorative justice” – responding to low-level wrongdoing in a manner that tries to make the community stronger rather than turning to criminal prosecution.

In recent months, VOICE-Buffalo stressed to county leaders that freeing nonviolent inmates early saves money by opening up cells – which can cost $175 a day per inmate.

The advocates also argued that early release can especially help inmates locked up largely because of a mental illness.

Sheriffs nationwide have complained for years about the increasing role their jails play in holding mentally ill prisoners who should be in treatment centers or mental institutions rather than local lockups.

In exchange for early release, the inmates would enlist in treatment programs, which on the outside are generally more effective than those offered behind bars.

Prisoners serve sentences of a year or less in the county Correctional Facility in Alden, so early release in most cases would take a few months, not years, off an offender’s time behind bars.

However, inmates given early release must consent to a full year of probation, Schifeling said.

The probation officer will determine whether the inmate has met the conditions of release or should be returned to the correctional facility for failing to comply.

Much like with the state parole board, Erie County inmates would be granted conditional release after they convince the commission that they will lead law-abiding lives; their release is consistent with the good of the community; and their release does not deprecate the seriousness of their crime.

The $150,000 in financing, though likely, is not yet a done deal. Further, the County Legislature has not yet appointed the commission’s members nor agreed to how they should be selected.

But to celebrate the progress so far, VOICE-Buffalo has called a community meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Elim Christian Fellowship at 70 Chalmers Ave. Hundreds of people are expected.

In June, about 300 people rallied in Clarence to support the return of a conditional release commission.