By ERIC LINHARDT
As we discuss the local prison crowding issue, it is important to keep things in perspective. For the first four months of 2012 no inmates were transferred to out of county prisons. Then, from June through November, we averaged between 20 and 40 inmates out of county due to overcrowding.
That number has declined precipitously since.
From December 20, 2012 through February 5, 2013, no inmates were housed out of county, and for the first three months of this year the average number of inmates housed out of county stands at two. Nonetheless, at a cost of $60 per day, housing inmates out of county gets expensive quickly.
It is early to know whether the overcrowding was an aberration or a longer term trend. Factors that impact on prison population are many.
Lycoming County has been recognized for its prison population management for good reason. Innovative programs including drug and DUI treatment courts, as well as our supervised bail program have saved us tens of thousands of bed days.
Recently, we have looked to an expansion of our bail program, and the creation of a day reporting center as ways to ease the burden even further.
The bail program allows us to identify nonviolent offenders who can safely be released to the community pending trial on intensive supervision and GPS monitoring. Day reporting can be used as a step up for parole violators, as well as a sentencing alternative for those facing domestic contempt, and as a step down for those nearing the end of their sentence at the County Pre-release Center.
When done right, day reporting can provide offenders with necessary services such as drug and alcohol counseling, job training, anger management, and cognitive and behavioral therapy.
By providing nonviolent offenders the services and supervision they need, we decrease the likelihood they will reoffend. Large portions of our jail population have been there before. If we view day reporting as an opportunity to address recidivism, we change the trajectory of our prison population long term.
The conversation about expansion of the bail program and day reporting arose out of the growth in our prison population and the expense it is placing on the County.
However, as we balance budgetary issues with public safety, public safety must come first. It is important that neither program simply be an "escape valve" for our short term prison crowding issue. Short term solutions rarely work, and ultimately have deleterious effects on public safety.
The offenders who are currently in prison are there because they need to be there. To the extent we can identify several dozen who can safely be moved into the community, I am willing to have that conversation, but not at the expense of public safety.
It is ironic that some criminal defense attorneys have used this opportunity of a prison population "crises" to criticize the policies and practices of this office as being too tough. Not surprisingly, it is the criminals and their lawyers who are the greatest impediments to the quick and efficient administration of justice.
While I would like for all criminal defendants to accept responsibility for their wrongdoing and stand ready to accept their punishment, most will try to game the system, and delay the inevitable. Some never accept responsibility until the jury renders its verdict of guilty. Our office has a 97% conviction rate, so nearly all of them are inevitably forced to accept responsibility whether they like it or not.
Unlike the criminal defense attorney whose only interest is that of his client, I have a responsibility to protect the rights of victims and ensure the safety of our community. When it comes to the defense of public safety, there is no such thing as being too tough. If the result is a higher prison population, so be it. I will continue to put people in jail who need to be in jail. When I learn of another homicide, or another shooting, or another heroin overdose, I know that my work is not done yet.
Linhardt is the elected District Attorney of Lycoming County.