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Inmate reintegration program is revived in Erie County

The Erie County Legislature on Thursday revived a local parole board – or “conditional release” commission – aimed at helping select, nonviolent inmates reintegrate into society.

The program will provide up to 25 inmates at Alden Correctional Facility with an opportunity to qualify for early release. In addition, they would get services such as housing and job training and placement, as well as mental health care and addiction treatment in return for a year of probation.

The program will develop a plan for each qualifying inmate to assist with reentry into the community, according to the Rev. Daniel J. Schifeling of VOICE-Buffalo. The effort will include linking them with community service providers who will help them manage their post-traumatic stress disorder, chemical addiction issues, housing, job training and employment needs, as well as family counseling.

“Whatever it may be, we will find service providers to help them and help the probation officer that is assigned to this group of releasees and who will work with them, especially those who are being released into the city,” Schifeling said Thursday before the Legislature voted on the new law.

Lawmakers approved the measure in an 8-3 vote, with Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, opposing it, along with Legislators Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst, and Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg.

Opponents cited cost as well as the lack of a sunset provision.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz still must sign the measure. Once that happens, Schifeling said, some administrative details still will have to be worked out, including hiring a probation officer for the program, before it is up and running. That is expected to happen before the end of the year, he said.

VOICE-Buffalo also will have a committee to help the program participants, so “it will be both the probation officer and people from member organizations of VOICE-Buffalo” assisting with their reintegration into society, he said.

VOICE-Buffalo has been working with members of the Legislature, the County Executive’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the John R. Oishei Foundation to re-establish the program, which existed between 1992 and 2005 before falling victim to the county budget crisis.

About 35 percent of county inmates are suffering from mental illness, Schifeling said. “The jails,” he said, “have become (de facto) mental health facilities since the funding for (actual) mental health facilities have been cut so severely.”