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Experts: New prison needed in Franklin County

January 30, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Two corrections experts on Thursday told a roomful of Franklin County officials something most of them already knew about the county's aging, overcrowded prisons.

"You're going to have to build. There's no way around that one," said Robert Aguirre, a consultant hired by the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections.

Aguirre spoke to about 60 representatives of the courts, prison, probation department, human services agencies and others with a role in corrections.


Aguirre raised questions the county should answer before it builds a new prison.

"Who's in jail? Why are they there? How long are they in there and did you intend to have them in jail?" he asked.

Franklin County's 32-year-old prison and its work release annex were designed for 200 inmates. Warden John Wetzel said Thursday there were 360 prisoners in the two buildings on Franklin Farm Lane.

Several factors determine how many people end up in jail, Aguirre said. The crime rate, arresting policies of police, sentencing policies of courts and alternative sentencing options are among them, he said.

According to 2001 figures, Franklin County's incarceration rate was 0.27 percent of its population. Among 10 Pennsylvania counties of similar size, its was the second highest. Centre County's rate was less than half at 0.12 percent.

"There's no real direct correlation. ... It's a county's decision on how they want to deal with the crime rate," Aguirre said.

Criminal prosecutions in this county have nearly doubled to about 2,000 a year in the past decade, he said.

Much of the prison population is made up of parole and probation violators and the numbers are growing, Aguirre said. In 2000, they comprised 15 percent of the population, compared to almost 28 percent in 2003, he said.

C. Diane Moore, the other consultant, said 75 cents of every county tax dollar goes to fund the criminal justice system, up from 65 cents a decade ago.

"Typically, the folks that are in your jail got there for some kind of substance abuse situation," Moore said.

Many also have mental health problems, and she said the county's treatment resources for those segments of the population are insufficient.

One option to ease overcrowding and deliver treatment is a day reporting center, Moore said. Criminal offenders could be assigned there in lieu of jail or as an intermediate step toward release.

She said the cost of one such program is about $10 per person, compared to the $45 a day this county spends to jail them.

Those assigned to a center could receive substance abuse or mental health counseling, job training, drug testing and supervision, Moore said. She said it should not be used as a place to dump prisoners just to relieve overcrowding.

Last year, the county's probation department applied for state funding for a center, but the funding was not approved, County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said after the meeting.

"We think it's a good idea worth pursuing," Elliott said. "You need a commitment from the courts and probation to use it."

Moore and Aguirre said every group with a stake in the prison decision has to be brought together to determine what policies should be in place throughout the criminal justice system.

"Go off for a weekend. Have a policeman at the door. Collect all the cell phones," Moore said.

Noting that a prison could cost $25 million or more, Elliott said the county is willing to take its time and explore all options "while plans are being made for what will ultimately be constructed."

"The worst thing we could do right now is build the wrong thing," he said.

Aguirre said that over the lifetime of a prison, only 1 percent of the cost goes into planning and 10 percent into construction. The other 89 percent is for staffing and operations.

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