Multiple factors thought to play role in problem

Since the Lycoming County prison system started feeling a space crunch in mid-2012, plenty of questions have been asked by county officials seeking to get to the problem’s root.

There is no single answer.

“It was a perfect storm,” Judge Nancy Butts said.

At the county level, more inmates tend to be people who are awaiting their case to be handled, rather than people sentenced to jail time. In 2011, Lycoming County sent 92 percent of those sentenced to two- to five-year terms to state prison, 10 percent more than the state average, according to the state Commission on Sentencing.

Everyone sentenced to fewer than two years, except for certain crimes such as sex offenses, stays in the county system.

A four-day “snapshot” of the Lycoming County Prison population taken by consulting firm Carter Goble Lee in July 2012 showed that 37 percent of inmates were awaiting disposition of their felony charges, 21 percent were awaiting resolution of their misdemeanor charges and 18 percent were in for parole violations. The remaining 24 percent either were sentenced inmates or committed by district judges.

More people being charged with crimes is part of the reason for the crunch.

Statistics for 2012 do not yet include all criminal dispositions from December, but they show 2,175 cases filed in county court, the first time Lycoming County has ever had more than 2,000 filings in a year. In 2011, that number was 1,860, according to the county Court Administrator’s Office.

Some think an increase in drug usage partly accounts for the problem.

“In my opinion, a good amount of the increase in our prison population is the heroin problem,” said District Attorney Eric Linhardt. “We’ve had an increase in drug possession, shoplifting, credit card theft with the increase in heroin.”

“What I’ve seen is an increase in prescription drug usage, an increase in heroin usage,” said Judge Marc Lovecchio. “They’re equal opportunity killers there’s people from out of town, and kids who’ve been born and raised here.”

It’s also generally agreed there are usually a few inmates in the prison longer than their minimum sentence because of housing issues.

“A critical part of the release plan is a place to live,” Butts said. “You have to have a room and a bed. If you don’t have family or friends here, you’re kind of out of luck.”

Beyond crime rates and the small number of homeless prisoners, asking those on the bench and bar why there’s not enough beds in the county jail system results in some divergent answers.

Butts cited a high percentage of cases held over for county court from the district judge level as one factor.

Numbers from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts show that since 2008, Lycoming County has held over 84 percent of criminal filings for county court. The state average over that time, excluding Philadelphia, was 62 percent.

“That could be based on a number of things,” Linhardt said. “We’re no longer willing to dispose of (domestic violence) cases at the (district judge) level when a victim no longer wants to press charges.”

Linhardt also noted that many drug possession and paraphernalia cases that might have previously been disposed of for fines and costs are held so that the offender may be supervised.

“An individual who finds himself in trouble with the law is a red flag for other issues going on,” he said.

The district attorney’s mandate to protect the public must always trump budget issues, Linhardt said.

“Is there a way we can reduce the population 5 or 10 percent without impacting public safety?” he asked. “The vast majority of people who are in county prison need to be in the county prison. Maybe we can find 20 or 30 offenders in the prison population who can behave.”

The county’s senior public defenders think that the policies of the district attorney’s office are unduly harsh.

“A lot of (crowding) comes from seeing more people incarcerated on less serious offenses,” said Nicole Spring, a county public defender. “Other counties are more creative in avoiding incarceration days than we are. They’re more willing to put people onto electronic monitoring.”

“Part of the problem in Lycoming County is that the DAs, the system, doesn’t understand the difference between people who commit crimes and criminals,” said William Miele, the county’s chief public defender. “There’s people who make dumb mistakes, who have financial issues, who have drug issues.”

Miele and Spring mentioned instances where a defendant had an initial plea deal revoked by the district attorney and then ended up getting better deals after sitting in jail for some time.

“If I’m going to get a better offer, I’m going to (wait to) go to trial,” Spring said. “Word in the jail spreads quick.”

“The only interest of the defense bar is protecting their client,” Linhardt said. “If the defendants and lawyers don’t like the plea offers from this office, then so be it … most will try to game the system, delay the inevitable and hope they get lucky. Some never accept responsibility until the jury renders its verdict of guilty. So be it.

“My responsibility is first and foremost to public safety. There is no such thing as being too tough,” Linhardt said. “Ultimately the disposition of cases is my responsibility. I have to answer to the public how cases are being handled.”