A top lawmaker in the Erie County Legislature wants to create a committee of professionals who have worked in the corrections field to advise the Sheriff's Office and hold the office more accountable.
Majority Leader April Baskin is calling for a law to establish a permanent Corrections Specialists Advisory Board.
Her proposal comes in the wake of a July report by the Commission of Correction that called Holding Center inmate India Cummings' death a "homicide" due to "grossly incompetent" and negligent medical care.
And today, she is calling out state Attorney General Barbara Underwood for delays in determining whether the state will investigate Cummings' death.
"I just feel like people are being really defensive, and in the meantime, people are dying," the Buffalo Democrat said Thursday. "We need to get this word out about what's been going on. I can't take it anymore."
The Sheriff's Office used to have an active Community Corrections Advisory Board to help protect inmates from mistreatment and neglect. But that board went dormant in 2014 after a Republican-supported majority took control of the Legislature and failed to reappoint any key members.
The Sheriff's Office runs the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. As of Dec. 30, 2017, the Holding Center housed 347 inmates and the facility in Alden housed 592 inmates.
Baskin said she has worked to meet with representatives from the Sheriff's Office and with other legislators to gain support for re-establishing an advisory committee.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, however, said Baskin had not spoken with him about the measure and he does not believe all members of Baskin's Democratic caucus support her proposal. Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the Legislature.
The initial advisory board was established by resolution in 2010 as a community response to the jail system's failure — as alleged by the U.S. Justice Department — to meet minimum standards in supervising and protecting inmates and preventing suicides. Several former members remain concerned about inmate treatment and have been critical of Sheriff Timothy Howard.
Baskin said she's drafting a local law that would make a new advisory board permanent and composed of professionals who have built careers working in the corrections field.
Those people are in the best position to make good recommendations to the sheriff, hold the Sheriff's Office accountable, and provide stronger communication between the Sheriff's Office and the County Legislature, she said.
Meanwhile, Baskin is calling on the state Attorney General's Office to commit to investigating the Cummings case.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. has said his office cannot investigate Cummings' death because of a conflict of interest but thinks the state Attorney General's Office or a special prosecutor should. One of Flynn's prosecutors is married to a Holding Center deputy.
The Attorney General's Office initially said it would decide whether to take up the matter by mid-August. The decision was delayed until this week.
Now, the matter has been delayed until Sept. 20, Baskin said.
Given that Cummings' death occurred in 2016, Baskin expressed concern about the statute of limitations and that time could run out for potential charges as she said it did in the case of Richard A. Metcalf.
Metcalf, of Lancaster, died Nov. 30, 2012. A spit mask had been knotted around his neck and a pillowcase was pulled over his head as he was being wheeled by jail deputies out of the Holding Center two days earlier. He was 35.
Then-Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III declined to press charges in the case. The state Commission of Correction found that missteps by jail deputies caused Metcalf's death. A 2016 report by the commission urged Erie County prosecutors to take another look at the death. The investigation was handled by Cattaraugus County because one of the prosecutors in the Erie County District Attorney's Office is married to a jail official who was a key figure in the case.
In the Metcalf case, the five-year statute of limitations on potential charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide expired before the Cattaraugus County district attorney told Metcalf's father that no criminal charges would be brought against the Holding Center deputies. That left murder as the only potential charge against the deputies, and the Metcalf family's attorney said it was not a murder case.
"We can't accept anything less than yes from the AG," said Baskin, who called for an investigation into Cummings' death. "It's time for the AG to move on this."