Updated: 6:02 p.m.
While he has no authority to release people held in his jails, Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard said he has no objection to others using their powers to do so.
“As sheriff, it is not in my authority to grant the early release or to remove the bail requirements that have been set by the court,” Howard said in a video statement released Friday. “But I will not oppose any measures or directives of the judiciary or other agencies to release any inmates.”
In his video statement, Howard said he has encouraged the state Board of Parole to review cases under its jurisdiction.
As of Thursday, 68 of the 571 people held in county jails are there because of technical violations of their parole, such as not maintaining employment or missing a meeting with their officer. Another 110 are in jail for being arrested while out on parole.
Late Friday afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of some 1,100 parolees statewide who are jailed for technical violations, such as failing to show for a meeting with their parole officer. That should clear the way for the release of the 68 low-level parole violators from Erie County jails.
Beyond parolees, 165 are serving jail sentences, mostly of a year or less for misdemeanor crimes. Another 406 are being held on bail, most of them awaiting trial on felony charges.
Advocates for those jailed are calling for their release because of COVID-19. They say the tight quarters of the Erie County Holding Center and the Alden Correctional Facility make it difficult to promote social distancing, frequent hand washing and other steps recommended to thwart the spread of the deadly virus.
“A sentence of something like a couple months for a petit larceny should not be turned into a death sentence,” said Rebecca Town, a defense attorney at Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo. “Once this virus really starts spreading through the jails, more people will be infected and inevitably let back out into the community.”
While several inmates have shown symptoms and are in insolation, there are not any confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the Erie County inmate population. Three employees with the Sheriff’s Office Jail Division have tested positive, though.
In the event of a state of emergency, which has been declared for Erie County, state law authorizes a county executive and certain mayors to ask the governor to transfer those held in county jails to safer facilities. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, has suspended prison transfers during the pandemic.
Poloncarz appears to have another option, allowed under state law and used by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to release about 300 people from Rikers Island. It appears the county would have to establish a furlough program, if it doesn’t have one already, and have those released supervised by the county’s Probation Department.
No one from Erie County has talked with authorities in New York City to inquire about their arrangement, according to NYC’s Office of Criminal Justice. Brian McLaughlin, the Commissioner of Erie County Probation, did not respond to a request for comment.
Poloncarz’s office has failed to respond to numerous requests from Investigative Post for comment regarding the release of county inmates and he refused to field questions from us during his press conference Friday.
The majority of the 400-plus inmates being held on bail are reliant on their attorneys to make motions to the court to obtain their release. They are being held after being arrested for some misdemeanor, but mostly felony charges that include homicide, harassment and possession of a weapon. Their release involves a more elaborate, time-consuming process that must ultimately be ordered by a judge.
“Is your life more valuable because you can pay $50,000? That’s what this is arguing and what this is about,” said Jessica Kulpit, a private attorney.
The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and the Erie County District Attorney’s office are jointly reviewing 17 cases. Those involving other low-income defendants who are facing more serious charges, including felonies, have been assigned to around 175 private defense attorneys who are working pro bono. Other cases are being handled by defense attorneys working for a fee.
A handful of motions have been filed already and the District Attorney’s office anticipates more to come in.
Brittany Penberthy was able to get her client released last week after a considerable stay at the Alden Correctional Facility. The woman, who has an underlying medical condition, was set to be sentenced after failing to complete drug court.
With the courts closed to non-essential matters, attorneys like Penberthy are uncertain when their client’s next court appearance will take place and how long they may be sitting in jail.
“It was a quick turn of events,” Penberthy said. “We were like, let’s wait and see, we will wait and see and then it all suddenly shut down. Our windows were getting smaller and smaller. We’re glad we made [the motion.]”
Erie County Justice Russell Buscaglia granted her client’s release. As with others who may be released, the woman must appear for sentencing at a later date after the pandemic subsides.
“I haven’t seen anything that’s asking anyone to just throw open the doors and let everybody out without any type of review,” said Dan Grasso, the Acting Administrator for The Assigned Counsel Program. “It’s not really outside of the bounds and as scary as people might think.”
Since the virus appeared in the Holding Center, the jail population has decreased a bit, from 606 to 571.
Judges have suspended the weekend sentences of nine people in light of the pandemic.
Also contributing to the small drop in the inmate population: Arrests have plummeted in the City of Buffalo. That means fewer people than usual being sent to jail after failing to post bail.
Before leaving the jail, inmates are screened for coronavirus, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Those granted parole are often mandated to link up with services to provide housing, mental health assistance and drug or alcohol treatment. There’s concern among advocacy agencies that a large release of prisoners could overwhelm those service providers, especially at a time when many are closed or restricted because of the pandemic.
“We are trying to coordinate an effective approach to mitigate any fall out from a mass release that we aren’t prepared to handle,” said Cindi McEachon, the executive director of Peaceprints Western New York, which operates a re-entry program for people who were formerly incarcerated.
A lack of access to services presents challenges for those coming out of jail.
“Our folks certainly feel the ramifications of that,” McEachon said. “[They feel] both the fear of everything that’s going on and the stress and anxiety and also the very real fact that very important resources are closed temporarily or for an indeterminate amount of time.”
Erie County prosecutors have used the lack of the confirmed coronavirus cases in facilities like the East Ferry Detention Center and the Alden Correctional Facility as a reason for why people should not be released.
“COVID is here,” McEachon said. “Whether we’re releasing people or not, it’s here and spreading.”