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Franklin Co. prison population down

February 06, 2009|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. -- When Warden John Wetzel took over the old Franklin County Prison on Jan. 19, 2002, the inmate population was 322, but the head count Friday morning was 298 before several people were released having served out their sentences.

That bucks the national trend which, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, saw the inmate population increase an average of 2.6 percent annually between 2000 and 2006 before moderating to 1.5 percent in 2007.

The decrease is not indicative of a reduction in the crime rate in the county, which was flat the past two years. There were 2,387 criminal cases filed last year, just a dozen more than in 2007, according to the Clerk of Court's Office.

The average daily population dropped from 376 to 328 from 2005 to 2006, even though the number of people incarcerated rose by almost 400, according to jail figures. In 2008, the average population was 334, but 2009 started off with an average population of 302 inmates, Wetzel said.

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One of the biggest factors in dropping the population was a drop in the average length of stay since 2005, falling by 10 days to 52 days. That correlates with the opening of the Day Reporting Center (DRC) in 2006, he said.

"If we were doing business the way we were doing it back them, our average daily population would be 411," Wetzel said. "The reduction in our population from the time we got here to now is policy-driven" and owes much to the DRC, he said.

The center, which teaches behavioral modification to mostly repeat offenders, had 120 people enrolled Friday, Director Kim Eaton said. On average, each person has 3 1/2 criminal offenses on their record when they enter the program, she said.

Many of them come into the 180-day program out of jail, having become eligible after serving two-thirds of their minimum sentences, Eaton said. The cost of treatment is about half of that of incarceration at $26.50 per day, though people spend more time in the program than they generally would behind bars, she said.

"They only send us the people that are at the highest risk of going back to jail," Eaton said.

Many of them do. While 398 people have graduated from the program or completed probation while in the program, Eaton said, 276 people have been discharged from the program for various reasons.

The jail, which opened in 2007 and has a capacity of 470 inmates, was renting space to Fulton County for another 21 inmates at $65 per day and 23 federal inmates at $75 per day, bringing the actual population up to about 340 on Friday, Wetzel said. The actual cost of incarceration is about $55 per day, so the $710,000 earned for holding other prisoners in excess beds helps defray the $9 million budget of the jail, he said.

"We actually have room for some more at the right price," Wetzel said. "It really helps us out with our budget."

"The cool thing about renting out beds is we don't have to hire more staff," Wetzel said. The same number of corrections officers are needed to staff a unit whether it has 40 or 60 inmates, he said.

Wetzel soon will introduce another program to the county Prison Board, weekend sentences. That would allow someone who, for example, is serving 30 days for driving under the influence to do it over 15 weekends.

Those offenders would more easily be able to retain their jobs, still would have to remain drug and alcohol free and would be locked up on weekends, the time when many of them got in trouble with the law in the first place, he said.

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