(EDITOR'S NOTE: A consultant recently recommended Lycoming County spend $40 million on a new prison to keep up with demand for cell space. The Sun-Gazette today offers the third installment in a five-day series that examines how the county got to this place and what options may be available.)
Two state constables bring a man into Lycoming County Magisterial District Judge Gary A. Whiteman's office.
The man, recently released from another county only to find himself picked up on $800 worth of unpaid fines in Lycoming County, isn't taken before Whiteman in his courtroom. Instead, the judge speaks to him in a back room as the two discuss if there's anybody he knows locally who can pay at least something to set him free for the day.
Whiteman offers the man a telephone and a directory and tells him to start thinking.
This is the first step in Pennsylvania's court system.
District judges are the first-line jurists where civil disputes under $12,000 are heard, criminal complaints are filed and sentences for minor crimes such as traffic violations and summary charges are handed out.
They also hold preliminary hearings for more serious cases such as felonies and set bail for defendants.
While district judges' actions don't always affect the county's prison population, they can sentence offenders up to 90 days in prison for summary offenses and two years in prison for certain habitual driving-related offenses.
The man who owed $800 in Whiteman's office likely would be taken to the county prison for two days for not being able to pay the fine, according to the judge.
"Unless he shows that he is totally indigent and has no ability to pay these fines, I'm going to let him out and we're going to try to do something that gets him to get that money coming," Whiteman said.
The judge said putting the man in prison served a purpose.
"I know he'll be there. He'll be represented by counsel," said Whiteman, who has been serving as a district judge for a little more than a year. "I'm going to send a message that I'm really serious about getting my money."
Whiteman also said he knows the balance that's needed when considering sending people to prison.
For instance, sending a person to county prison for 25 days is the equivalent of that person paying off a $1,000 fine, he said.
"But, really, that defeats the whole purpose of what I'm supposed to do because now I'm not getting $1,000 (in fines) and I'm costing the county $66 a day by housing the guy," he said. "So I turned a $1,000 account receivable into a $1,500 account payable, so I have a $2,500 net loss to the county. We're all paying for that."
In Lycoming County, district judges also may make defendants eligible for supervised bail, which has the ability to keep some people out of prison while they wait for their next step in the county court of common pleas.
Whiteman, who served 20 years as a city police officer and as its chief for a time, said he can use supervised bail as a tool but is limited to the county's present capabilities.
"There's only so many electronic monitors to go around," he said. He said he needs to think about protection of the community when he issues bail.
"All of the people that you incarcerate will appear (in court)," Whiteman said. "If it's your house that he's breaking into next, do you want him out or do you want him in? I know that it's difficult for the county to keep continually swallowing this daily debt of outsourcing prisoners, but when I talk to people there is a greater public opinion that is, 'Thank God somebody is finally addressing the issues at hand.' I've had more conversations like, '$500,000 bail? Nice job!' "
District Judge Allen P. Page III, whose territory serves a portion of the city, said that what transpires in his courtroom makes a "huge impact" as a court of initial jurisdiction.
He said that supervised bail has been a good choice for those who commit certain offenses that have potential for prison time.
"Somebody who comes in front of us for driving under suspension, which has a mandatory period of 30 days or greater depending on the circumstances, does not have to have a taxpayer paying $65 a day," Page said.
"Supervised bail, as far as we're concerned, is probably one of the best options that has ever come down the pike," he added. "Supervised bail allows us to put people in a holding pattern. It says, 'Hey, if you agree to these sanctions that either were imposed by the court or inherent to the program, you can be released if you're in compliance with that.' "
Part of his job, Page said, is to find a deterrent.
"Clearly (a) fine isn't a deterrent until it's paid. You can fine anyone you want, but for some individuals, it may not be a deterrent because they don't have the means to pay it at all," he said. "Historically, the stocks in the front of the courthouse weren't real successful in getting people to change. To continue to keep putting people in jail may not be a motivator."