Trip to Luzerne County facility highlights pros

The chronic overcrowding at Lycoming County Prison raises the question of who really should remain behind bars.

Underlying that discussion is the purpose of correctional institutions, and moreover of crime and punishment: Should those who commit crimes simply be punished, or also be rehabilitated?

According to a 2011 Pew Center project, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” of the 8,750 inmates who were released in Pennsylvania in 2004, almost 40 percent were reincarcerated by 2007.

“The new figures suggest that despite the massive increase in corrections spending, in many states there has been little improvement in the performance of corrections systems,” the report stated. “If more than four out of 10 adult American offenders still return to prison within three years of their release, the system designed to deter them from continued criminal behavior clearly is falling short.”

So if imprisonment doesn’t work to rehabilitate those who commit crimes, what does?

Education is key, local officials say.

Day-reporting centers run by GEO Group’s Community Reentry Services, such as those in Luzerne and Franklin counties, offer classes that treat unhealthy behaviors, substance abuse, anger management, GED prep, and employment and life skills.

County President Judge Nancy Butts was the one to suggest a day-reporting center in Williamsport as a multifaceted answer, not just to “free up bodies,” but with the above benefits in mind, along with increased level of surveillance and accountability.

“We can’t just put people in jail and expect them to come out and be different,” Butts said.

The program awards incarcerated offenders with credit for good time served by releasing them early and plugging them into a day-reporting center, she said.

Franklin County’s day-reporting center has been operational since April 2006, and that county’s recidivism rate dropped from 45 percent to 18 percent from 2006 to 2009, said Program Manager Adam Schlager.

According to a study that Butts quoted, standard probation clients are more than three times more likely than day-reporting center clients to return to crime more than one year after release.

County Commissioner Tony Mussare listed several key benefits a day reporting center would offer this area.

It costs about $65 a day to house each inmate in the county prison out of taxpayer pockets, plus their medical care and transportation costs to the Clinton County Correctional Facility when overcrowding occurs. If about 100 inmates were involved in a day-reporting center, the cost for each of those inmates could be as low as $30 a day, Mussare said, calling that “significant savings.” The costs would further lower with more inmates’ involvement.

Mussare estimated it would cost about $800,000 to build a center; a full cost evaluation is pending as the commissioners are in the research phase for the project.