Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
In our view
Should someone who was arrested for stealing an apple be taking up space in Lancaster County Prison simply because he cannot make bail?
Of course not. But that was the case until recently. And it's but one small example of why the prison was overcrowded and, thus, why prison costs have been skyrocketing.
Lancaster County Prison is chronically overcrowded. It is filled with people who have been arrested for using drugs as well as with the dealers who sell them. It holds people awaiting hearings and those who have been sentenced for serious crimes.
All have been arrested for breaking the law. But officials agree that not all deserve to be placed in a "hard cell."
Last Thursday, President Judge Joseph Madenspacher introduced a plan to reduce the prison population and cut escalating costs in the process.
The proposal includes:
n Electronic monitoring for people who have violated parole or committed lesser crimes;
n allowing inmates to reduce their time in prison for good behavior or for attending drug and alcohol classes and obtaining a general education development diploma;
n increasing the use of prison video conferencing for inmates to reduce time and transportation costs;
n placing people in drug, mental or veterans courts to help them rather than incarcerate them; and
n removing people from the prison who, as in the case above, simply cannot make bail for a minor crime.
Portions of the plan have been in place for several months. Lancaster County Commissioner Scott Martin noted that six months ago, the county's prison population exceeded 1,300. That required prisoners to sleep in the gym and on floors because there were no beds or cells for them. It created a harsh environment, not only for the prisoners but for prison staff as well.
Lancaster County also was housing prisoners in other counties. Continuing that effort was projected to cost the county an additional $1.9 million this year.
The number of people now being housed is approaching 1,050 -- the threshold that Madenspacher and the prison board assert is the optimum.
Martin said the changes are the result of renewed cooperation between the county, the court system and the prison. He cited Judge Dennis Reinaker's work to reduce prison overcrowding through alternative means.
Electronic monitoring devices have long been touted as a way to keep tabs on those who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes without placing them behind bars.
This is not a matter of the county getting "soft" on crime.
Martin, who served as director of the county's Youth Intervention Center from 2005 through 2007, said studies show the rate of recidivism drops when people convicted of lesser crimes are removed from the general prison population and placed in programs designed to help them.
The apple thief did not avoid paying a penalty. But the costs associated with his imprisonment not only burdened him, they needlessly burdened taxpayers.