The mistaken release of a man charged with attempted murder landed Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard in the hot seat in County Hall.
The Legislature's Public Safety Committee questioned Howard for nearly an hour about the wrongful release of 32-year-old Awet Gebreyesus who was ordered held without bail after allegedly stabbing his wife in the entrance of the Amherst Street Wegmans in January.
Howard says jail clerks did not know the prisoner was supposed to be held because of a filing error. And he says without new hires, many clerks are forced to work 16-hour shifts.
"I want to make it clear, at this point, that I am not making excuses for our employees. But they're asking or suggesting that we have procedure and policy problems within the jail that's allowing this to occur, when in fact the problems we have are not enough staff," said Howard.
In the past year Howard says five employees quit the understaffed records department because they're often forced to work such long days.
"In 2010, we requested to increase the number of people in this records management area to 19. Instead of an increase, we suffered a loss of staff by our former executive who believed, and there's some valid points to that, that overtime was cheaper than hiring additional people," Howard said.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Timothy Hogues questioned the Sheriff about what is being done to prevent future mistakes.
"I understand the constraints around the manpower but there must be something that we do differently today that ensures that the public is safe and not at risk for a mistaken release," said Hogues.
"Anyone can continue to list problem after problem. The true value of that position is to make sure that we look and search for solutions so that this doesn't happen again."
Hogues encouraged the Sheriff to discuss the staffing shortage in the jail with the new County Administration.
Howard says the Sheriff's Office purchased a new computer system to better track prisoners, but the County has not finished installing it. He says he plans to meet with New York's Department of Corrections Monday to discuss the staffing issues.