Justice wins out with Buffalo probation program

Posted by: Gordon on 5/20/2015
VOICE Buffalo leaders with Erie County executive at bill signing for conditional release board

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz signed the Conditional Release Program VOICE-Buffalo has been working for more than a year into law on May 12, with legislators Grant and Barbara Miller-Williams and leaders from VOICE-Buffalo in attendance.

Attaining social justice, change, and equality is synonymous with hard fought struggles that often seem endless while demanding commitment, hard work, unity, and action.

The lessons of community organizing have been captured by VOICE-Buffalo, a coalition of more than 45 organizations that celebrated a victory years in the making this May.

In 2005 Erie County government dismantled a probation program that granted conditional release to nonviolent inmates as a result of budget cuts. Nearly a decade later pastors and other leaders of VOICE Buffalo began work to reinstate the program.

Their move was one of compassion and justice as well as efficient government, since many inmates who would qualify for early release suffer from mental illnesses that could be better and more economically treated outside a prison setting.

The group had to work to organize the Republican-led county Legislature to vote in favor of the enabling legislation and develop a collaborative agreement with the Erie County Sheriff's office, which is investing $56,000 in the program (total cost to re-create the program is $150,000). After more than a year to advocate and educate the community, the county executive in May 2015 signed a law re-creating the parole board or conditional release commission into law. 

The program will provide an estimated 25 inmates with the opportunity to qualify for early release, in addition to assisting them with housing, job training and placement, mental health care, and drug addiction treatment during a one-year probationary period.

VOICE-Buffalo will establish its own committee to help and support parolees reintegrate into society.

“Whatever it may be, we will find service providers to help them and help the probation officer that is assigned to this group of releasees and who will work with them, especially those who are being released into the city,” VOICE-Buffalo president Pastor James Giles and Clergy Caucus member Rev. Daniel J. Schifeling told the Buffalo News.

About 35 percent of county inmates are suffering from mental illness, Schifeling told the paper.

Story by Elisabeth Roman (Elisabeth is a Chicago writer and president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry)

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