With some city officials against the county's potential location of a day-reporting center in Williamsport, county officials recently took two council members to visit such a center in Luzerne County, where the benefits captured their interest.
Councilwoman Bonnie Katz and Councilman Randall J. Allison said they visited the Luzerne center on Sept. 4 to gather firsthand knowledge of what a day-reporting center really is.
"I thought it would be worthwhile to go along so I could have an informed opinion if and when it does come up before council," Allison said.
The county is looking at a day-reporting center as an option as Lycoming County Prison is chronically over-crowded. Depending on research and discussions, a center could be up and running here in 15 months, Commissioner Tony Mussare said.
He said a center would not only help solve the overcrowding issue, it would rehabilitate inmates and save taxpayer money over the short and long term as those centers are proven to reduce recidivism rates, the rate at which offenders return to prison.
"It's costing us a pile of money to keep them in jail, and it's not solving any problems," Mussare said.
Mussare emphasized a local center primarily would be used by local residents, and those entering the program would be evaluated on risk. It would revolve around local needs.
"These are our kids" it would serve, Mussare said, not primarily people from out of the area. "There's a misconception that people will come in from Philadelphia."
The program in Luzerne County awards incarcerated offenders with credit for good time served by releasing them early and plugging them into a day-reporting center, county President Judge Nancy Butts said. It's up to county officials to determine which inmates get to participate in the center.
While Katz and Allison initially opposed the idea, the trip turned out to be eye opening.
Katz said her first reaction was: "No way in our city are we going to let this happen." That was because of her initial perception. "We didn't want to see all those people going in with ankle bracelets in our city."
But her experience at the center changed her opinion.
"The people are really organized there, the place was clean. The spirit of the people who were in there was very up, very motivated," she said. "This was done in a building where there were several other businesses ... and there were no complaints from those businesses."
She, along with Mayor Gabriel J. Campana, was concerned about taking a property off the tax rolls, but Mussare clarified the company that runs those centers is an outside agency, not a government agency, so those taxes wouldn't be affected.
After seeing the transformative process of the center, Katz said if the time comes to vote at City Council, she will vote in favor of it.
Although Allison's opinion is more in favor of a center here than before, he said: "We still have more homework to do." He wants more discussion on its location.
"I think everybody involved wants to see it in the best place, the most appropriate place for it, in order for it to be successful," Allison said.
He's unsure of how he'll vote but wants to hear other council members' opinions.
He spoke positively about how tightly run the Luzerne center is and how most of its clients are people with most of their future ahead of them.
"It's really focused on giving people who have never quite gotten it right hope and help for putting those things in place in their lives," Allison said.
While Campana was unable to go on the trip, he hopes to visit the Luzerne center with police Chief Greg Foresman.
Still, he continues to have reservations.
"It still doesn't change my deep, deep concern of having a facility that allows individuals that would be incarcerated out on the street in the city," Campana said. "If they (the commissioners) would like to do this outside city limits, that's their call."
His first concern is location, saying he thinks temptations to fall back into unhealthy, illegal patterns would be greater around a larger population, as in the city - plus he wants residents to remain safe. He advocates a rural setting.
However, the Luzerne center is in the central part of downtown Wilkes-Barre, with no problems thus far, said Program Manager John Hogan. Their clients initially report six days a week, which reduces with their completion of the six- to eight-month program; they must report at a minimum of three times a week, Hogan said. The clients are tracked and electronic monitoring may be used.
Campana also has an issue with that type of rehabilitation, calling it "coddling people."
"I come from the old school. If we believe people are committing a crime, we don't slap their wrist - they serve time for their crime," he said. "We don't want to be softer on crime, and then that gives people the opportunity from urban areas to come here because they don't have to do the same time."
However, Butts said those centers do not coddle or enable criminals.
"We're holding them accountable," she said, listing four goals of the criminal justice system: deterrent, incapacitation (prison), retribution and rehabilitation, calling rehabilitation a "cornerstone."
"It seems silly to sentence someone ... and give them no different way of looking at life to change their behavior," Butts said.
Campana has a different twist on that philosophy. "What I've been advocating for 15 years, when I came into office, is when they break the law, we lock them up. I want the prison too full; if it's too full, we're getting criminals off the street," Campana said.
He questioned the motive of having a center, asking if the commissioners don't want to build a new prison because of the expense, or if their motives are truly altruistic, looking toward the long-term good.
Mussare said their motives are for many good reasons.
"This isn't just fiscally responsible, but for the good of the community and the inmates," Mussare said. "The expense of a new prison does factor in, but it's not the leading reason." If a new $40 million prison was built, the cost of housing inmates would certainly go up, he said.
Mussare called a day-reporting center a "no-brainer."
Campana advocated a tri-county prison system for Lycoming, Clinton and Union counties in Allenwood to share expenses with greater housing capacity.