Consider alternatives to new prison, and roots of the problem

There’s a proposal on the table for Lycoming County government to spend $40 million for a 538-bed facility that would be a combined prison and Pre-Release Center.

Before doing that, county officials are looking to see in the next year or so if the host of programs geared to keeping offenders out of prison without harming public safety are enough to avoid building a new prison.

And then there is the school of thought expressed by former County Commissioner Rebecca A. Burke in last week’s Sun-Gazette series on prison overcrowding that the existing prison is still plenty useful.

While we don’t advocate lenient sentencing just to avoid prison overcrowding, the fact is that the county has some proven prison alternatives that, along with some new alternatives it is trying in the coming year, may be a legitimate means to solving its problem.

Its drug treatment court began in 1998.

The county’s DUI court was established in 2004.

Both prison alternatives carry rigorous requirements with them and are considered models for variations of court-ordered penalties.

The county’s mental health court has averaged 10 cases a year.

And the fact is that drug and alcohol and mental-health cases make up 90 percent of the county’s cases.

So it’s worth examining closely whether these and other methods are enough to keep from building a new prison.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the real roots of the offenses that lead to the prison overcrowding.

Those roots are poor and/or divided family structure and no development of learning social interaction skills. The lack of correct guidance in formative years leads to an education and discipline deficit and that creates a greater likelihood of an unproductive young adult.

So shame on us for much of this.

Until we get to the roots that are creating the prison overcrowding, the problem may be unsolvable and will remain expensive on many fronts.