County seeks creative ways to handle criminal offenders

The prison population in 2012 was sky-high with lots of overcrowding, and this year it has been significantly lower. Still, that could change at the drop of a hat, and measures should be taken to be ready when it does, according to county officials who this year received a recommendation to build a new $40 million prison.

When overcrowding occurs, inmates are sent out of county for housing, which incurs additional costs.

Out-of-county housing costs in 2011 were $7,553; in 2012, $339,756; and $161,833 for the first 10 months of 2013, said Warden Kevin DeParlos.

Prison numbers fluctuate. The average number of inmates per day in 2012 that had to be housed elsewhere was 15, DeParlos said. This year, through October, the average was about eight.

In 2012, the average daily prison population was 374; through October of this year, the average daily population was 377. Prison capacity is 392.

County Commissioner Jeff Wheeland said prison population numbers are never static, but always in flux, and despite this year’s lower numbers, as of December, inmates again were being sent out of county due to overcrowding.

“Bad behavior creates a cost, sometimes a very big cost, to taxpayers in the county,” Wheeland said. “It’s constantly a balancing act between public safety and the rights of people that don’t do bad things and those who do.”

DeParlos said it’s impossible to try to predict prison population numbers.

“You never know what the numbers are going to be,” he said.

To address the overcrowding issue, the possibility of a day reporting center for non-violent offenders may be in the mix for 2014. This center would help prepare inmates for a chance at a more successful future and reduce recidivism rate, the rate at which inmates recommit crime and return to prison.

“In 2014, the day reporting center is the number-one issue on our plates to help alleviate the need to transport non-violent prisoners to other counties,” Wheeland said.

“It would save us the need to build a $40 million prison,” said President Judge Nancy Butts, who helped initiate the idea.

“It’s in the commissioners’ hands,” she said. “Once the commissioners decide to pull the trigger on this, we could have something up and running in a couple of months.”

She emphasized public safety is of paramount concern, and no decisions would be made to compromise that.

Wheeland said the county is looking into location possibilities, and Commissioner Tony Mussare is leading that initiative.

“I believe the courts have done some improvements because the prison population has gone down somewhat,” Mussare said.

However, the danger of putting further solutions on the backburner is that the population “can change in a heartbeat,” Mussare said, “so we still have to move forward with new initiatives.”

This year, to help manage the prison population, the intensive supervised bail release program was expanded in April. That program uses electronic monitoring.

“The program has contributed to the county’s criminal justice system as a best practice in managing its population,” DeParlos said.

Staff was doubled from two to four for this pre-trial program, and they received comprehensive security and safety training, said Chris Ebner, program manager.

“With the increased staff, it enhanced an already successful program to help with overcrowding,” Ebner said.

Over the past two months, between 79 and 83 beds have been freed up, thanks to the program, he said.

While it’s “too early to tell” if the program is successful, it does free up more beds than not, said Tim Mahoney, deputy warden of treatment.

“Not everyone belongs in jail. Save the beds for criminal elements that need a lock-up environment,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney said the program provides a “front-door option” as opposed to building a new prison.