An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Court to study ways to reduce length of stay at County Prison

(Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster County’s court system is taking a fresh look at how it handles criminal cases to see if it can reduce the time defendants spend at County Prison, Judge Merrill Spahn said Thursday.

An advisory committee formed to study the issue held its kickoff meeting Wednesday, Spahn told the Prison Board at its regular monthly meeting. Set up as an informal working group, the committee includes representatives from the district attorney’s office, public defender’s offices, judges, court administrators and local defense attorneys, the judge said.

The hope is to reduce the average length of stay at County Prison “to numbers more in line with the national average,” Warden Cheryl Steberger said.

According to the needs assessment developed for the county’s new prison project by owner’s rep CGL, the average length of stay for Lancaster County inmates as of September 2022 was 83 days for men and 44 days for women, for an overall weighted average of 74 days. Adding in central booking detainees reduces the number to 58 days.

The comparable length of stay nationwide in 2022 was 35 days — more than three weeks shorter than the local figure.

As CGL notes, a prison’s average daily population derives straightforwardly from the number of admissions multiplied by their length of stay. Minor changes in either factor “can have an enormous impact” on the net population, the consulting firm says.

For example, in 2021 the County Prison’s average daily population was 700 and the average length of stay was 51 days. A change of just three days in length of stay would have shifted the average population by 50, CGL calculated: At 48 days, it drops to 650; at 54 days, it rises to 750.

At present, the county is planning for a new prison with an initial count of 1,000 beds. Local activists have urged the commissioners and the planning team to think even smaller, saying new bail practices and alternatives to incarceration have potential to reduce the population significantly more.

If the design process determines it would be feasible, “we would love to do that,” Commissioner Josh Parsons said, but he cautioned that the team has to plan for decades of future use and projected countywide population expansion in mind.

In the early 2010s, procedural reforms in the court system successfully brought average County Prison populations down from around 1,300 to the low 700s. As of Thursday, the number stood at 730, Steberger said.

That drop resulted from eliminating a number of major inefficiencies, said Parsons, who was clerk of courts at the time and championed the reforms. Spahn’s team may be able to secure further incremental reductions — “I hope they do,” the commissioner said — but another 40% to 50% reduction is not in the cards.

The committee anticipates starting by looking at the time it takes to resolve cases involving lower-level charges, Spahn said. If they can be processed more quickly, that would free up resources to focus on ones involving more serious charges, potentially creating a “ripple effect” of efficiencies, he said.

“We’re looking at a lot of things,” he said. It’s too soon to say what changes might be brought forward. The 2025 court calendar has already been set, so the earliest any new policy would be implemented is 2026, he said.

The Rev. Jason Perkowski of Power Interfaith and Tom Zeager of Justice & Mercy urged Spahn to consider adding members of the public to the board. Spahn agreed that it would be appropriate to get public input, but said he expressed reservations about adding laymen to the committee itself.

The issues involved concern technical details of administration and departmental interaction, he and District Attorney Heather Adams said. Moreover, Spahn said, he doesn’t want the committee to grow to the point that it becomes cumbersome and unproductive.

Will there be meeting minutes or reports, asked Neil Ward of Have a Heart. Spahn said he’s happy to provide public updates, but he’s reluctant to encumber the committee with formalities that might inhibit frank discussion or slow down its work.