County faces costly prison problem

(EDITOR’S NOTE: How did the county get to a point where a relatively new prison lacks sufficient space to meet the demand for beds? The Sun-Gazette will explore that question and potential solutions in a series, Lockup Lowdown, coming in March.)

If statistics don’t stray far from what a consultant says, and programs to help offenders stay out of prison don’t make a difference within the next two years, a new county prison will be needed.

That’s what Lycoming County commissioners and the county’s president judge told a Sun-Gazette editorial board this past week after releasing a taxpayer-funded study on the prison and court system.

Building a new $40 million county prison to replace one that opened fewer than 30 years ago isn’t their first choice, according to Commissioners Jeff Wheeland and Ernie Larson and President Judge Nancy Butts. Commissioner Tony Musare was invited but was unable to make it, he said, because of another meeting that ran long.

A lack of sufficient space to house county inmates at the 277 W. Third St. prison is costing the county a significant amount. In the past year, costs to place inmates in other county prisons rose from $12,500 a year to $600,000 annually – a 4,700-percent leap.

Findings from the county-hired consultant show that the inmate population between the prison and the Pre-Release Center at 546 County Farm Road will increase more than 23 percent during the next 15 years.

Between the two detention facilities, 360 beds are available. By 2027, projections show that the average daily prison population will be 468.

Plans call for some people to remain outside of prison walls by using a day reporting center to serve nonviolent offenders, those on probation and parole, and increase the amount of people on supervised pre-trial bail.

The county hopes this may make enough of an impact to avoid the need to build a new prison.

But “if projections are spot on, we don’t have a choice,” said Commissioner Jeff Wheeland.

If increased inmate population continues to be an issue after a two-year grant period to operate a county day reporting center, Wheeland said, then “we’re going to have to build a prison.”

The prison-needs assessment study, which was released to the Sun-Gazette only after initially being denied through a formal Right to Know request for the information, reveals significant projected increases in certain offenses and inmate demographics.

It also points to some flaws within the court system, although Butts said the study does not reflect the real nature of what transpires at the Lycoming County courthouse.

According to the study, which was conducted by Carter Goble Lee, a Miami-based correctional planning company, and L.R. Kimball engineering and architectural firm of Ebensburg, the county’s drunken-driving rate is expected to increase by 46 percent in the next 10 years.

DUI offenders now make up about 15 to 18 percent of the prison population, the consultants found. The increase is mainly due to mandatory sentences for that offense, they said.

Statistics also show that the county’s female inmate population has increased by 42.5 percent since 2000, and is expected to rise another 24.8 percent through 2022, according to the study.

In its summary of the court’s effectiveness, consultants indicated that Lycoming County processes criminal cases at a slower pace than national standards, even while the number of criminal filings have dropped by more than 10 percent since 2002.

Further, the study showed that the prison population could be reduced by nearly 60 percent – almost 130 inmates – if the court system met timely case disposition standards set by the American Bar Association.

Butts said she appreciated the study’s independent review of the county’s situation, but added that it’s difficult to place national standards on a local problem.

The judge insisted that the court system is doing everything it’s able to do. She said she was surprised to see the consultants’ findings of a lack of efficacy.

“What do you mean we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing?” Butts said of her reaction. “We absolutely are. I’m doing everything I can to push things forward.”

Adding another judge to help ease the number of backlogged cases would be a costly solution, she said.

“Can we do more? Sure. But ‘more’ is always going to cost money,” Butts said.

The study also commends the county for implementing numerous programs that keep people out of prison, such as the DUI and drug courts. Between those two programs, Butts said, the county has saved more than 3,000 bed days, the equivalent of about $210,000.

Wheeland said the increase in the female prison population is due to what he calls “the Jerry Springer effect.” Women are more aggressive nowadays, he opined.

However, Butts said women are just getting treated equally to men. A gender disparity on prison sentences may have existed years ago, but that has since changed, she said.

While Lycoming County sees a large number of DUI cases – 542 were processed in 2011, according to statistics from the state Unified Judicial System – Butts said “people may not be getting the message about DUI.”

“That’s why we’re talking about recidivism,” she added, emphasizing the county’s plans to treat offenders at a day reporting center and providing greater bail oversight.

Wheeland said the prison needs assessment study serves as a “platform” on which to base future decisions.

“Hopefully it’s a wake-up call for all our citizens,” he said.