The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 11, 2013

Day center encourages county inmates to study and work

The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG — After a little more than three months in operation, Union County’s new prison diversion program, a Day Reporting Center, was on display Monday for a tour by commissioners from neighboring Snyder and Northumberland counties and the media.

Hosted by Commissioners Preston Boop and John Mathias, the tour was conducted by program director Michael B. Millett, who believes community service, counseling and education using day reporting and early parole can cut as much as two-thirds from the cost of jail.

“We’re not looking to spend any new dollars here,” Commissioner Boop said, “just to spend the money we have more wisely.” He characterized the day reporting approach as a version of intermediate punishment, between full time incarceration and probation.

Individuals serve their sentences at the center during the daytime and go home nights.

In recent years, Union County’s inmate population has averaged 62-66 men and women for a prison that has room for 36 and which dates back to 1856, with no facilities for women. For a number of years, that situation meant the county was spending between a half million and one million dollars to house inmates in some other county jail.

Factoring startup costs over six years, Mathias estimated the annual operation of the day reporting center will be $255,200.  Out-placement of inmates costs Union County $26,200 a year. At those rates, the day reporting center costs are recovered in savings if 10 people can be in this program instead of jails elsewhere.

“We currently have six clients who have been truly diverted from incarceration,” Mathias stated, “so we’re getting close.”

County prison Warden Doug Shaffer estimates that 66-70 percent of the inmates in Union County would qualify for early parole or a day reporting center or some other diversion program because they are sentenced for minor retail theft, charges related to drug and alcohol abuse or failure to make support payments.

At the day reporting center, male and female prisoners are assigned community service, go to class to complete schooling for their GED and receive individual and group counseling.

“Community service is a part of the day reporting center,” Millett said. “If you are going to be here, you are going to be productive.” He said the center expects to expand the educational curriculum to include life skills under as pilot program with the Central Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit, located in Montandon, in 2014.

On an overcast day with steady light rain, day center clients who normally would be mowing fields, assisting with a community garden or working elsewhere, moved around the former armory at 480 Hafer Road, attending GED classes or waxing two government vehicles in a garage at the rear of the building.

Along on the tour were Commissioner Rick Shoch of Northumberland  County and Commissioners Malcolm Derk and Peggy Chamberlain Roup of Snyder County. Northumberland is exploring a proposal to replace its aging jail in Sunbury with a new prison, a project roundly discussed with a $3 million price tag. Derk and Chamberlain were on a fact-finding tour to see how a similar program might translate to Snyder County’s facilities.

Union County is not inviting participants from other valley counties just yet. “We want to get our own house in order first,” Boop said. “We are sharing the ideas. We are not selling anything here.”