If enough offenders can be kept out of jail without impacting public safety, perhaps building a new county jail can be avoided.
Those are the hopes of county officials faced with soaring inmate numbers and a proposal to spend $40 million on a new prison.
But before making that decision, they are looking to programs that provide alternatives to keeping people in jail.
Lycoming County was an early adopter of diversionary courts, which ask offenders to meet rigorous reporting and counseling requirements in exchange for less jail time.
“Ninety percent of our cases are drug and alcohol or mental-health related,” said county President Judge Nancy Butts. “The worst is when they’re both.”
Drug treatment court began in 1998 and has had 220 graduates out of the 438 who have entered the program. DUI court was established in 2004. The county’s mental health court has averaged about 10 cases per year.
“We’re mandating they address underlying issues that got them in trouble in the first place,” said District Attorney Eric Linhardt of treatment courts.
“We’re saving tons of jail days in DUI court,” said public defender Nicole Spring. “Those in that court get up to six months on electronic monitoring of their mandatory year.”
“People are not just drinking for the taste,” Butts said. “They’re medicating for some pain with treatment we can get to the root of the issue why this person recidivates. Otherwise we’re dealing with symptoms and not the underlying disease.”
Butts has mentioned on several occasions that the county jail is sometimes used to “dry out” someone with a substance problem, a practice that should be avoided with so many inmates.
“Absolutely with people who are using controlled substances sometimes 30 days off the streets is good to break the connection,” she said.
Offenders on treatment courts, under county policies, still do some jail time, and they are not for everyone.
Spring recommends DUI court most frequently to third-time convicts, unless those set to serve 30- or 90-day mandatories on first or second offenses “really, really want to get clean and not just avoid jail,” she said.
Electronic monitoring is an alternative to incarceration used for those on treatment court. Finding ways to get more nonviolent offenders on an ankle bracelet or on in-home detention could relieve some of the jail crowding.
“For something like a simple assault, the quality of life kind of crimes disorderly conduct, probation violations – we could roll through (a treatment court) to go through these issues,” Butts said.
A track for veterans within the county’s diversionary courts is under consideration.
“We’re seeing more and more who have served and were either being exposed to IEDs or were involved in some kind of concussive injury which changes their personality,” Butts said. “We owe this population an enormous debt of gratitude. When they come back and need our help, to turn a blind eye is unthinkable.”
Besides making allowances for veterans, the county may expand its use of electronic monitoring, add more probation officers and create a day reporting center to try to stem the tide of inmates, but those are about the only options left, according to Butts.
“When you look around the Commonwealth, there’s not much more that we don’t have,” Butts said.