Seventeen inmates at Erie County jails who had less than 45 days left on their sentences will be released, the Erie County District Attorney's office said Tuesday.
The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo had filed a motion for the release of the inmates. DA John Flynn's office consented to the motion. The order was granted by Erie County Court Judge Susan Eagan on Monday afternoon.
The inmates were convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, Flynn said.
The releases were being made to reduce the inmate populations at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
Last month, four Erie County Sheriff's deputies who work at the Holding Center tested positive for Covid-19.
A corrections officer at the Niagara County Correctional Facility tested positive for the virus, acting Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti announced Tuesday. The officer "has been off work for the past two weeks after developing symptoms relating to the virus" and is recovering at home, Filicetti said. The officer is the first employee of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office to be diagnosed with Covid-19.
Defense attorneys say that inmates in Erie County have not been tested. While there's no sign of an outbreak of coronavirus among inmates at either of the county's jails, they fear it's just a matter of time before one happens.
Erie County's jails contain people who have been arrested and are being held while they await trial either because they cannot post bail or have been remanded without the possibility of bond. The jails also house defendants who have been sentenced to less than a year of incarceration, as well as people who have violated their probation or parole and are awaiting administrative hearings.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 538 inmates in the two Erie County facilities.
The number of inmates in New York's jails has been dramatically reduced by bail reform rules that went into effect Jan. 1. The new law bars people charged with most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to be held on money bail before trial.
In addition to the 17 people who were released, the district attorney's office is reviewing motions from defense attorneys to consider the release of inmates who are awaiting trial. Flynn's office had consented to the release of five pretrial inmates as of Tuesday.
"The reality is that the new bail laws have pretty much self-medicated the issue," Flynn said. "There really is no one in there now for stealing a candy bar from Walmart. ... I'm not unsympathetic to the possibility of them getting sick. For me, I can't just let them all out. There's a balancing act."
Defense attorney Mark Sacha said he was able to win the release last month of one of his clients, a man who was out on probation when he was arrested on a driving while intoxicated charge. He's heard from several other inmates eager to get out.
"I am concerned about my clients and I'm concerned as a citizen. I don't want to see murderers let out on the street," Sacha said. "But at the same time there's so many different political forces at play. "
Defense attorneys can only file motions electronically. "It's not a substitute for oral arguments or at least a discussion with a DA supervisor," Sacha said.