(EDITOR’S NOTE: A consultant recently recommended Lycoming County spend $40 million on a new prison to keep up with demand for cell space. The Sun-Gazette today begins a five-day series that examines how the county got to this place and what options may be available.)

Lycoming County’s prison consistently has been recognized for controlling its inmate population.

In fact, from 2009 to 2012, the prison earned consecutive “best practices” awards from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania for its efforts to curb overcrowding within its walls.

Much of that is due to what many say are innovative county court programs that are designed to keep offenders out of prison.

Programs such as the county’s driving under the influence and drug courts and its supervised bail programs have saved tens of thousands of bed days in the prison, according to court officials and county-hired consultants who conducted a study last year on Lycoming County’s prison and court system. Results of that study were made public about a month ago.

Then last summer, inmate numbers started to grow beyond what the prison and the county’s Pre-Release Center reasonably could accommodate.

Besides the downtown prison’s 255 beds, the Pre-Release Center has 132 beds at 546 County Farm Road in Loyalsock Township.

That has meant transporting to and housing inmates in other county facilities.

And the cost has caused Lycoming County commissioners to rework their budget to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so.

Just a few years ago, the county spent an average of $10,000 to $12,500 a year to house county inmates elsewhere, but now those costs are closer to $600,000.

Last October, the population between the prison and the PRC peaked at an average monthly number of 376.68. In that month, 24.74 inmates were transferred to other facilities at a cost of about $65 a day.

Those partial numbers are based on how many days an inmate stayed in the prison and when they were transferred.

The prison recorded 41.59 inmate transfers in September 2012 – the highest of the past year.

Estimates from consultants indicate that the county’s total prison population will increase by 23 percent during the next 15 years.

So what has caused such dramatic increases, a trend that is leading county officials to consider a new $40 million prison possibly outside of the city?

To some degree, consultants who studied Lycoming County’s prison and court statistics between 2003 and 2011 pointed to rising numbers of drunken driving convictions and offenses committed by women.

Additionally, consultants found that the county’s criminal cases were not being handled as quickly as American Bar Association standards suggest, even as the number of criminal filings in the county went down. A potential reduction of 130 inmates in the prison could be realized if the county met those standards, the consultants said.

Robert T. Goble, executive vice president of Carter Goble Lee, the consulting firm that conducted a study of the county’s prison, said the county’s lower-than-average case-disposition rate does not necessarily mean there are malfunctions within the system.

“It’s just an indicator,” he said. “When we see rates below (the recommended level) we say it might be worth taking a look at procedures.”

But Lycoming County President Judge Nancy L. Butts said it is difficult to place national standards on local problems. She said that while Lycoming County’s criminal filings may be dropping, other counties in the state with similar populations are experiencing an increase.

Overall, the number of criminal cases filed decreased by 10.2 percent in the past 10 years, according to the consultants’ study. But the number of DUI cases jumped 41.6 percent in that time.

The number of female inmates has increased by 42.5 percent since 2000, with an additional 24.8 percent expected in the next nine years.

While 392 beds now are available between the prison and the PRC, consultants said that the average daily population among the facilities will be 468.

A December 2012 report by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania that studied statistics of 44 rural prisons between 2006 and 2011 found that Lycoming County was second highest in the average number of inmates housed elsewhere at 45. Butler County was highest at 82.

The report indicated that the population of rural county jails rose 17 percent between 2004 and 2010.

The average number of inmates in rural county jails on Jan. 31, 2011, was 172, according to the report.

Three county prisons were considered over capacity – Indiana (121 percent), McKean (109 percent) and Schuylkill (103 percent). Lycoming County was at 88-percent capacity during the study, slightly above the 84-percent capacity average of all 44 prisons.