Buffalo News Viewpoints: "Advisory board is needed to oversee Erie County jails"

April 6, 2019

"Last year was a deeply troubling one for Erie County’s jail system. Thirty-three-year-old Michael Girard died after hanging himself from his cell’s bars. The 2016 death of 27-year-old India Cummings was ruled a homicide due to medical neglect by the New York State Commission of Correction. And Erie County was named one of the five “worst offenders” – “the most problematic local correctional facilities” – in New York State.

In September 2018, Erie County Legislator April Baskin introduced a local law to help address this record of abuse, neglect and indifference to inmate and staff security through the creation of a permanent Corrections Specialist Advisory Board. The proposed law is designed to provide oversight of the operations of the downtown Holding Center and the County Correctional Facility in Alden. Partnership for the Public Good and the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild are joined by many community groups and county residents in our call to urgently advance the proposed legislation. Other supporters include the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Concerned community members and the Erie County Legislature already responded to the jail system’s failures nearly a decade ago. In 2010, the Legislature created by resolution the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board. However, that body has sat dormant since 2014, with no new members appointed or meetings convened."

By Andrea Ó Súilleabháin and John N. Lipsitz | April 6, 2019

"The proposed local law would create a new advisory board with several important changes. First, a board created by local law, rather than by resolution, will ensure that the board be filled and regularly convened; the new board will withstand political changes and not be allowed to sit empty.

 Second, the proposed law provides a new structure and composition for the corrections board. Members will be appointed who have worked in the fields of corrections, probation, re-entry, mental health and legal services, as well as prisoners’ rights and restorative justice. These specialists will provide the experience and expertise needed to advise, oversee and hold accountable the Sheriff’s Office and jail system.

The creation of the specialist advisory board deserves the support of all county legislators, regardless of party, because the Sheriff’s Office will benefit from the advice and assistance of experts in these fields. The public’s interest also calls for an oversight board, with $98 million in public funds disbursed to the Sheriff’s Office for the jail system each year ($85 million for the Division of Jail Management and $13 million for the Division of Correctional Health).

Due to the widely documented mismanagement and abuse allowed under the sheriff, additional public funds are spent annually on costly litigation, settlements and responding to federal and state investigations. But our partners are quick to point out the need for a panel of experts that will outlast the end of the sheriff’s term, and that this oversight of public institutions and public dollars is needed regardless of who succeeds him.

Across New York State and the nation, jail oversight at the local level is on the rise. The New York City Board of Correction is one of the earliest independent oversight boards in the United States, created in 1957 and expanded further in 1977. With nine members appointed by the mayor, the city council and judges, this board is empowered to enter jail facilities as citizen inspectors to establish and ensure compliance with legal minimum standards.

More recently, the Los Angeles County Sheriff supported more civilian oversight and created the Office of the Constitutional Policing Advisor in 2015. This person turns to professionals with deep knowledge of law enforcement and criminal law to provide civilian perspectives on key policy issues, to ensure compliance with regulations, and to strengthen public trust and transparency.

Back in New York, the Onondaga County Legislature passed a local law to create a jail oversight committee in 2015. Similar to the proposal in Erie County, this committee is appointed based on expertise; two members must have law enforcement experience and two must have civil rights or civil liberties experience. The Onondaga County Legislature created and authorized the committee to review serious incidents at the county jail and to produce recommendations about policy, procedure and training. The committee was created in response to community concerns following the death of two individuals in the jail in 2010, a far lower number of fatalities than in Erie County jails, where 24 people have died since 2005.

Just last year, Westchester County Executive George Latimer created a Correction Advisory Board of nine members with backgrounds in criminal justice. The board will provide advice to improve programs and services in the county jail, to reduce recidivism and to enhance public safety. The County Department of Correction has praised the creation of the board and said it anticipates benefiting greatly from the advice and support of its experienced members.

What are the benefits of jail oversight? According to John Brickman, who has served as chairman of the Board of the Correctional Association of New York and head of the New York City Board of Correction, “Watching something affects its course. In facilities that confine people, the presence of civilian overseers humanizes everyone – inmates and staff – and makes the prison a better, more effective and more enlightened institution for all.”

Corrections experts agree that it’s the independence of efforts that makes for effective oversight. The proposed specialist advisory board in Erie County underscores this need for independence, with a new structure and appointment process. Brickman has noted that experienced, prominent citizens appointed to the difficult work of jail reform and monitoring bring with them broader support. With their experience and status, members of the advisory board can influence county programs and spending on corrections, on mental health and on substance abuse, and can also reach out to private philanthropy when needed. They can also help bring greater media coverage to jail conditions and take steps that may be more difficult for elected officials to champion. Overall, their presence and continued attention can keep the professionals running our jail system – from the sheriff to jail management staff – on their best behavior.

The attorneys, policy experts and concerned citizens in our coalitions approve of the proposed law to create a permanent Corrections Specialist Advisory Board. We are concerned that the law has not been discussed or advanced since it was introduced in September. We call on Baskin to urgently raise this matter for discussion in the County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee and for all legislators to support it. Without this board and renewed jail oversight, we believe that an inexcusable record of neglect and endangerment will continue unchecked in Erie County jails."

"Andrea Ó Súilleabháin is executive director of Partnership for the Public Good. John N. Lipsitz is an attorney and member of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild."