Transporting inmates to out-of-county facilities due to a housing shortage at the Lycoming County Prison remains one of the biggest challenges for the Lycoming County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Mark Lusk told Williamsport Rotary members Monday at the Genetti Hotel.
Lusk, who has been in office for two years, said he remembers the days from the mid-1970s when only about 50 prisoners - including juveniles - were housed at the old prison at the corner of Third and William streets.
When a new prison was constructed in 1986 just a few blocks away, the prison population was at about 84 inmates, he said.
Today, that number stands at 226 inmates housed at the county prison, with another 130 housed at the county's Pre-Release Center in Loyalsock Township.
With the increased number of inmates and only fixed number of beds, Lycoming County has incurred a dramatic increase in costs for housing an average of 15 inmates a months, according to prison statistics. That monthly number has been as high as 40, Lusk added.
The county is budgeting $600,000 for 2013 for out-of-county inmate housing, up from just about $10,000 three years ago.
"It just brings home the point that we have crowding issues," Lusk said.
And that figure doesn't include costs such as wages, fuel and vehicle depreciation that the sheriff's department racks up moving inmates to Clinton, Tioga and Centre county prisons.
Lusk said the situation is repeating in places other than just here. He said a consulting firm that's working with the Lycoming County Prison Board to help find solutions to local needs told him there has been "an incredible explosion of inmate needs" in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
He thinks there are a number of reasons for the housing crunch here, including mandatory minimum sentencings, parole violations and bench warrants.
Many of those locked up in the Lycoming County Prison are not from here, according to the sheriff.
"Easily - and I'll be conservative - 50 percent of who we house are not who we call 'county natives,' " Lusk said.
The recent announcement to close two state correctional facilities leaves unanswered questions for county prisons, he said.
"I don't know what that's going to do as far as what we're going to deal with back here," Lusk said. "I don't know if the outlook is good."
The sheriff said there are consequences to the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality.
"What do you do when you need more space and need more resources?" he said.
But Lusk said there are constant efforts between the Lycoming County District Attorney's Office, judges, prison administration and the sheriff's department to help ease some of the burdens.
"We are always trying to be creative as to who we can allow out of prison, who are not the high-risk offenders that will maintain safe harbor in our communities, but at the same time free up bed space so we aren't incurring the additional astronomical cost that we do when we transfer out of county," he said.