Buffalo group calls for diversion program to reduce incarceration

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- A Buffalo organization wants to reduce incarceration rates by connecting potential offenders with the services they need.

VOICE Buffalo wants to reduce the number of people being locked up by 50 percent.

There are 1,100-1,200 inmates in Erie County. Programs like juvenile and family treatment courts aim to keep people from being repeat offenders.

VOICE President Pastor James Giles said there are never enough diversion programs to help the number of people entering the criminal justice system.

“If there were enough we wouldn’t have 35 percent 40 percent population inside the holding center, all of the correctional facilities, having mental health issues,” said Pastor Giles.

VOICE proposes a diversion program that would intervene before an arrest even happens for people who commit crimes like loitering, vandalism, petit larceny and low level drug offenses.

“We’re talking about individuals that are caught up in this recidivating loop and find themselves in and out of the correctional facility, in and out of the holding center, three, four, five, six times,” said Giles.

They say it starts with more Crisis Intervention Training and bias training for police officers.

“To be able to see them as not as criminals and not as someone who is necessarily breaking laws as folks who genuinely need help,” said Danielle Johnson, the chair for VOICE Buffalo’s criminal justice task force.

They also want to create a diversion center. The idea is that when police arrive on a scene they would take the offender to the diversion center to be screened by community members. It would then be determined if the individual needs mental health or addiction services, or needs to be taken to the Holding Center.

“The diversion program is to reduce the number of folks who are arrested simply for being mentally ill and simply for being drug addicted,” said Johnson. “When people are dealing with mental illness and addiction they very often exhibit behaviors and act out in ways they ordinarily would not.”

Buffalo Police told us they are generally in support of diversion programs but would need more information from VOICE Buffalo before they could speak on this specific plan.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that said, “The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has successfully partnered with VOICE Buffalo in the past for inmate and alternative incarceration programs and the Sheriff’s Office welcomes any initiative that can prevent individuals diagnosed with mental health issues from being incarcerated.

“When the state and federal governments closed mental health facilities, local jails became a ‘dumping ground’ for individuals with mental health issues.  Now, with no other place to house a mentally ill individual, or, more importantly, treat the patient, they become inmates who strain the Jail Management Division’s resources.

“The Erie County Sheriff’s Office supports any program that will aid individuals in accessing mental health services and prevent them from being incarcerated.”

We also reached out to acting District Attorney Michael Flaherty to get his input. VOICE Buffalo plans to meet with three of the district attorney candidates during a public meeting on Sept. 8 at 7:00 p.m. at Elim Christian Fellowship.

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