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Onondaga County pushes for jail oversight committee

Ellen Abbott
Proponents of a jail oversight committee attend an Onondaga County Legislature meeting.

A proposal for a jail oversight board in Onondaga County is on the table after 16 months of discussions and community input.

Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon says this committee creates a place to go if something goes wrong at the jail.

“The incident can be reviewed by peers of the community, representatives of the community," McMahon said. "And then if it turns out the incident isn’t an incident, then they know there was due process. And if it is, then the committee’s job is to make a finding of fact and to make a recommendation.”

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
Members of the Onondaga County Legislature say now is time to establish an oversight committee for the county's jail.

The proposed Onondaga County Justice Center Oversight Committee would investigate things like inmate suicide, use of force against prisoners or the serious injury or death of a prisoner or Justice Center employee. McMahon says the nine-member committee will have no punitive power, but could make recommendations for change.

“I don’t think there’s many more adjustments to make," McMahon explained. "I think we’ve addressed a lot of concerns that different parties have had. If there’s other legitimate concern from our law enforcement community that they want us to address, obviously we’ll look to do that. But it’s time to move forward with this.”

Several community groups worked with lawmakers on this, including the New York Civil Liberties Union.  Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the local chapter, says this move brings a small measure of justice following the deaths of two inmates in recent years.

"You can’t really ever do anything to get justice for a needless loss of life, but what you can do is bring a measure of change and make that part of the legacy of that tragedy," Gewanter said. "That small measure of justice is a good thing."

McMahon also hopes this committee can create a kind of closure.

“It’s time to move forward with this," McMahon said. "Time to bring back a sense of confidence to some of the communities in our county. And at the same time, I think really help showcase the work that our deputies do on a day-in, day-out basis at this jail.”

McMahon hopes lawmakers can take a vote on the proposal in October, so a committee could be in place in the new year and coincide with the beginning of a new regime in the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department. Current Sheriff Kevin Walsh, who has opposed a review board, is retiring at the end of this year.