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Erie County legislators wise to seek jail reports

In a creative move that could help ensure at least some level of professionalism in Erie County’s jails, the county Legislature is considering a measure that would require the Sheriff’s Office to provide it with a report whenever an inmate dies or becomes seriously injured and requires hospitalization.

If that sounds redundant, it is – and necessarily so. Under the leadership of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, the county’s two jails have established a record of misreporting suicide attempts and assaults in an evident effort to mislead the state Commission of Correction, which oversees New York’s jails.

That was the reason four members of the defunct Community Corrections Advisory Board went to court in 2018 and, against the odds, won a ruling that ordered Howard to accurately report serious jail incidents to the Commission or risk being held in contempt. It was a startling decision that underscored the judge’s belief in its necessity.

It was a short-lived victory, though. An appeals court overturned the decision last month on the unfortunate but plausible grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit. An appeal is under consideration, but the Legislature is wise to seek to take matters into its own hands. Which is to say, its Democrats are wise. They are the ones pushing this measure.

Democrats hold the majority on the Erie County Legislature and are taking a hands-on approach to forcing accountability on the mismanaged Sheriff’s Office. They want to be notified of the same incidents as the Commission of Correction. Happily, that requirement would take no extra work for jail personnel beyond the simple task of forwarding to the Legislature the same report it is already required to send to Albany.

The Legislature is clearly an interested party in this matter. It funds the jails. It defends the lawsuits. It is accountable for the trial awards. Erie County taxpayers are on the hook for costs incurred at the jail. Under the circumstances, it would be strange for the Legislature not to demand this information.

The entire Legislature should be on board with this effort, including its Republicans. Anyone who believes that government should be run more like a business understands the importance of data. You can’t manage an enterprise, let alone improve it, if you don’t know what’s going on – the exact circumstance produced by misleading jail reports.

Yet, as Timothy Meyers, the Legislature’s majority leader observed, that information comes to county lawmakers not from the sheriff, but from a reporter. “The information we’re getting, we’re getting from Matt Spina and The Buffalo News,” he said, explaining the need for a law.

Yet, oddly, members of the Legislature’s minority caucus seem doubtful. “It seems like this is just another in a long string of attacks against the Erie County sheriff,” Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo said in questioning the legality of the measure.

It’s not, of course. Howard has earned the doubts that many observers hold of his leadership. Even if you accept that comment at face value, though, Lorigo and his members need to explain how they intend to ensure the Legislature is being given accurate information about the management – and mismanagement – of the county’s two jails. That’s their job as much as it is the Legislature’s Democrats.

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