County, GEO at standstill as debate over state parolees continues

Lengthy discussion concerning the ongoing GEO Group issue resulted in no action from the Lycoming County commissioners Tuesday morning.

The commissioners are at odds over whether to allow GEO to provide reentry services to state parolees from Lycoming County as it does for county parolees in exchange for a payout of $5 per state parolee per billable day — an amount that is negotiable, said Michael Boughton, program manager for GEO Reentry Services.

Commissioner Rick Mirabito is concerned the state’s deal with GEO takes advantage of the taxpayer dollars that pay for the county’s program. He said GEO will profit off the state while the county pays the overhead, as GEO works out of a county-owned facility. Commissioner Tony Mussare countered that the space would otherwise be empty and is free in exchange for cheaper rates on county parolees in the program.

“There’s a practical reality here which is that somebody’s got to pay the freight on the train,” Mirabito said. “Right now, I’m very concerned that the taxpayers in this county will be picking up the freight on a responsibility that belongs to the state, when the state isn’t even meeting its obligation to us in other areas of adult probation.”

Mirabito said the county has no obligation to accept GEO’s agreement with the state immediately, considering the county’s contract with GEO is up in December. The commissioners will decide by then whether to award the county’s next reentry services contract to Firetree Limited., a local reentry services group, or again to GEO.

“What is the rush?” Mirabito asked. “Why would we undertake a responsibility on such short notice, for such little money, that we don’t have to do, that puts a burden on the taxpayers? I can’t see the point in doing that.”

Prior to the county’s decision to halt GEO’s services to the state, there were 22 state parolees involved in the program. Those parolees are Lycoming County residents who are being monitored by state parole agents, Boughton confirmed.

Several community members spoke out against GEO’s agreement with the state, including Williamsport Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, city resident and former commissioner Dick Nassberg, Jersey Shore resident Todd Lauer and city councilwoman Bonnie Katz.

Cost aside, some of the opponents were concerned about bringing in more criminals and addicts from across the state.

“We do not need any other individuals in this city that have these adverse problems,” Campana said. “I would appreciate, as mayor of this city, that you would say no to such a program — I don’t care what they’re giving you. We can’t afford additional problems.”

Commissioners, GEO and probation office officials each pointed out that the parolees already are in Lycoming County, and would only come from Lycoming County.

Boughton added that Firetree Limited. and Crossroads Counseling have similar agreements with the state.

“These people that we keep talking about, that are citizens of Lycoming County — not convicts, but citizens — are still coming to entities within the Williamsport area for services,” Boughton said. “I just want to make that real clear.”

Scott Metzger, deputy chief adult probation officer, argued for allowing GEO to continue its services for state parolees, pointing out that GEO paid about $100,000 to help renovate the county building. He added GEO’s services have saved the county hundreds of thousands, if not millions, by lowering the prison population so inmates didn’t have to be housed outside the county.

“I’ve worked hand-in-hand with GEO and I’m tired of them getting a bad rap,” he said.

Commissioner Jack McKernan and Mussare were quiet on the issue, except to ask questions for clarification such as whether the county has the right to infringe on GEO’s program with the state. Solicitor J. David Smith responded that, yes, the commissioners can stop GEO from accepting non-county parolees because it is outside of the county contract.

He added that state parolees from the county who “mess up” go back in front of a local judge and will end up back in county prison.

“A lot of them don’t go back to state prison when they violate,” Metzger said. “They violate, they’re put back on county supervision. So if they’re not having services provided so they have a chance to succeed in this county, then they’re going to go back on the streets, back to what they know best.”