When the “conditional release” program was terminated amid county budgetary woes several years ago, nonviolent offenders were denied an important opportunity to re-enter society. Instead of getting a second chance, they were left to languish in an environment that does not, at the very least, promote positive change. Keeping nonviolent criminals locked up allows them time to harden, and finally releasing them back into society does not necessarily make for safer communities.
A majority of the Erie County Legislature seemed to understand the situation and has wisely voted to reinstate the conditional release commission, whose purpose is to help a few carefully chosen, nonviolent inmates reintegrate into society.
The program will provide up to 25 inmates at Alden Correctional Facility the chance to qualify for early release. They would not be left to figure things out on their own. Rather, a wide range of community service providers would be called on to help the recently released manage mental health and chemical addiction issues and find housing, job training and employment, in addition to family counseling.
VOICE-Buffalo, the faith-based community improvement group, ran a successful conditional release commission for years after a state law in 1989 called on counties to form such commissions. The county budget crisis of 2004-05 led to its disbandment, and VOICE-Buffalo has been working with county government, the Sheriff’s Office and the John R. Oishei Foundation to bring the program back.
After careful consideration, the Legislature voted 8-3 to re-establish the commission, with Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, and Legislators Edward A. Rath III, R-Amherst, and Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, opposed. Opponents cited cost – to pay the wages and benefits of the new probation officer to supervise inmates released early – and lack of a sunset provision. If the program works as intended, it should save the county money by taking some inmates out of the county jail. If it is not working as intended, the Legislature will have to be prepared to modify or abolish the commission.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has properly signed the measure.
Keeping nonviolent criminals, particularly those struggling with mental illness, behind bars is counterproductive. A small number of inmates will be closely monitored as they get the help they need to stay out of jail. Conditional release should be good for them and good for the county.