County officials weigh renegotiating reentry

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its annual review of the past year’s major news stories.)

After seeing the reentry program in action over the past three years, the Lycoming County commissioners are willing to continue supporting it — but with some constraints.

The reentry program, currently implemented by the GEO Group, is designed to help former prisoners rejoin society as productive community members. It began in the fall of 2014 and has cost around $2.41 million for about 86,900 days of programming, according to a report from John Stahl, adult probation office supervisor.

The report states there have been 205 clients who have successfully completed the program to date and 817 processed intakes, which includes program returnees. Individual intakes amount to 570, Stahl said.

GEO has provided the program since its creation, but now the commissioners have another option. Firetree Limited also put its hat in the race when the county went out to bid for these services earlier in the year.

The commissioners, who passed the county’s 2018 budget earlier this month, budgeted $700,000 for the program. That’s the budget GEO was given for reentry this year, though the numbers have climbed to nearly $850,000.

“We’re willing to support the program, but it has to be within some constraints,” said Commissioner Rick Mirabito.

However, in order to get reentry to fall within the confines of its $700,000 budget, the county will need to renegotiate both organizations’ proposals. Though the commissioners initially expected to select the vendor in August, the decision to minimize the reentry budget and disagreement over which organization would be the better pick have pushed that decision back.

“We’ve had some discussions, no decision. I don’t think we’re close to that decision yet,” said Commissioner Jack McKernan. “We’ve got to find a way to get that program to fit in that budget next year.”

McKernan said it’ll be up to the vendors and the committee created to review their proposals to prioritize aspects of the program and figure out how to get the costs down.

“There can’t just be a blank check,” Mirabito summarized.

Costwise, Firetree is the way to go, Mirabito said. GEO’s price per 100 people over the course of 260 program days totals about $661,024, whereas Firetree’s pricing would total about $517,660 — or 28 percent less, he said. Additional costs bring both organizations over the set limit.

However, if each can conform to the $700,000 budget, that won’t matter, Commissioner Tony Mussare retorted.

Regardless of cost, based on a grading scale that took into account the needs of the county, the proposal review committee gave Firetree a 112 out of 200 while GEO was graded at 175 out of 200. Ultimately, the committee’s recommendation was to award the contract to GEO.

In addition to wanting the program for a lower cost, the commissioners would like to see more specific data in an attempt to better quantify how well the program is working and if it’s truly benefitting the community.

Mirabito said he would like to see a review of the past three years of data, identifying how long each person has been in the program, program costs per person per day, each person’s offense categorized, indication of whether a person was working or obtaining education while in the program and indication of whether program graduates were able to find employment or homes. He also would like to hear personal feedback from participants.

“I think all three of us agree that there’s hope to try to put people through to improve,” Mirabito said. “We’re not going to give up on people. I’m just trying to say, is it the most effective use of our dollars?”

President Judge Nancy L. Butts says it is an effective use of county funds, due to the “immeasurable” effect of adding productive taxpayers back to the community and helping make the county safer. She said reentry has directly helped bring down the population at the county prison.

The effects of being exposed to new ideas, treatment and more through reentry also may reduce recidivism, or the rate at which people return to prison for committing new crimes, she added.

“It’s been a major contributing factor to the reduction of inmate population in the prison,” agreed Warden Kevin DeParlos.

Overcrowding at the prison has long been a burdensome expense for the county, costing millions of dollars over the years in order to house inmates elsewhere.

Inmates become eligible for the reentry program about halfway through their sentence, if they have not had any disciplinary issues. When reentry began in September of 2014, the prison, which has a capacity of 393, had a total average population of 409.34 and trends showed that number climbing.

According to a report DeParlos put together on prison population over the years, by September of 2016, the average population was down to 363.84. This past September, the average population was down to 341.89, and it has continued to decrease in the months since.

Though the county continues to spend money on housing female inmates in Clinton, Centre and other counties due to limited space for female prisoners, it has been over a year since a male inmate had to be transferred.

“If anybody thinks we don’t need reentry, I’d show them that,” Butts said.