Northumberland County officials announced last week that by the end of the year as many as 40 nonviolent offenders in the county prison will be released to a home confinement program.
The move will save close to $500,000 a year.
As far as that goes, the plan sounds completely commendable.
Detaining inmates in county prisons is most appropriate when an individual is a flight risk before trial or when the offender poses a danger to the public. In other cases, county governments ought to explore every available alternative to prison.
Northumberland County, in doing so, is following a path undertaken by Union County. There, county officials are working to establish a day-reporting center for nonviolent offenders.
The vision shared by Northumberland County officials goes farther. Union County is seeking to reduce its jail population because the facility can only hold about 35 inmates. On any given day, there are as many Union County inmates held in neighboring counties as there are in the Lewisburg lockup.
And therein, Northumberland County officials sense an opportunity.
Rather than reduce operating costs while cutting the number of inmates, Northumberland County officials hope to put up a vacancy sign and welcome out-of-county law-breakers. By charging more in rent than the county spends to house inmates, Northumberland County officials envision generating $730,000 in revenue by filling their empty beds.
The plan is imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit that made this country great. It is not, however, what we need from government.
Government ought to be reducing its footprint and passing along the savings to taxpayers. When there is an opportunity to use shared buying power or take advantage of efficiencies of scale, it might make sense for neighboring counties to work cooperatively.
In this case, the neighbors are offering help in the hope of making a profit.
Prison provides a public service. It is a serious penalty that comes with costs affecting prisoners' lives and the lives of all those around them. Suggestions that the government is, in any fashion, trying to capitalize on the penalties is unseemly and introduces purpose and temptation that has nothing to do with crime, punishment or justice.
Shifting costs from one county to another may help Northumberland County's balance sheet, but it is a financial shell game that we would all be better off not playing.