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Prison reporting center considered by county panel

June 13, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - For some Franklin County criminal offenders, time behind bars could be replaced by days spent in counseling under a plan to create a day reporting center, according to members of the county's prison board.

"Our goal is to have a day reporting center operational by the first quarter of 2004," Assistant County Administrator Kelly Livermore said after Thursday's board meeting. The center would provide qualifying offenders with a structured environment during the day, while allowing them to be at home or work instead of in jail.

"It's something that the judges have all reviewed and have committed to use if it's put into place," said District Attorney John F. Nelson, a member of the board, which includes the county commissioners, court, probation and corrections officials.

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"The whole idea is to get them to be productive citizens, get them help when the need help and hope they don't re-offend," Nelson said. "Make them taxpayers instead of tax users."

The program would be run by the county's Adult Probation Department. Chief Probation Officer Richard Mertz said offenders would, at one location, be able to receive life skills counseling; mental health, drug and alcohol and sex offender treatment; DUI school and drug testing.

The county would need to hire a probation supervisor, three probation officers and one support staffer, according to Mertz. Other staffing needs would include a clinical supervisor to coordinate treatment programs and two addiction counselors.

His outline for the program stated that existing county life skills and mental health programs could be incorporated at the center.

At this point, however, the proposal does not include a location and Mertz said he is not yet ready to release a preliminary budget. Mertz said the most likely option for a site is to lease or buy an existing building.

"We've got six months to pull it together," said Mertz. Part of that effort will be "to see what funding is available for various aspects of the project."

Whatever the cost, Warden John E. Wetzel said it will be less expensive than the $45 a day the county spends on each inmate. "It makes sense to get as many people out of here as you can," he said.

While a day reporting center could reduce the overall prison population, Wetzel said his main problem has more to do with the quality of inmates.

The average daily population in May was 320, down from 358 in June 2002, according to Wetzel's monthly report. The decreases, however, have been primarily in work release and minimum security prisoners, the type of offenders that already benefit from existing alternative sentencing programs.

"We're as crowded in the main building as we were a year ago," Wetzel said of the 30-year-old prison. Work release and women inmates are kept in a separate building.

The classifications of the inmates do not fit the rated capacity of the prison, according to Wetzel. For example, the main prison has a rated capacity of 64 minimum security beds, but had only 21 prisoners in that classification on May 31.

That same day the prison had 120 medium security inmates, although its rated capacity is 28. The prison is not supposed to have any maximum security space, but had 30 inmates in that classification.

That means medium security prisoners are being housed in the minimum security cellblock, where cells actually are rooms with no locks on the doors.

"People that need to be in hard cells are in cells that are not hard," Wetzel said. "You just can't put padlocks on the doors, you have to have the ability to open all the doors in case of fire."

Crimes have changed over the years and so have criminals, according to the warden.

"Part of how we classify people is what they came to jail for," he said. Other things that go into the equation are age, educational background, whether they have a job and their home environment.

The price tag likely will be large, but Wetzel said he did not want to throw out a number, or speculate about how the county could pay the bill.

"We have to figure out what the price will be before we figure out how to pay for it," he said.

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