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United Way of Lancaster County


Advocates call for creating a county-community ‘working group’ to study ways to lower prison population

Michelle Batt, third from right, founder of the Lancaster Bail Fund, speaks to the media outside the County Government Center on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Joining her are, from left, Angie Carpio of Vera; Beth Reeves of Power Interfaith; Jeff Hawkes of the Lancaster County Bail Reform Coalition; the Rev. Jason Perkowski of Power Interfaith; Brad Wolf of Peace Action Network; and Jessica Lopez of the Lancaster Bail Fund. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

A coalition of criminal justice reform advocates asked the county commissioners Tuesday to convene a “Justice & Safety Working Group” to examine ways of reducing incarceration, with a view toward decreasing the size of the correctional facility that the county is in the process of designing.

“This is a chance to do right by the county,” the Rev. Jason Perkowski said — for taxpayers, who will bear the cost of the County Prison’s replacement, and for justice-impacted individuals and their families and communities.

Perkowski was speaking on behalf of Reimagine Justice Lancaster, a group bringing together POWER Interfaith, Lancaster Bail Fund, Lancaster County Bail Reform Coalition and other organizations.

With the right reforms, developed by a broad team of government and community stakeholders over the next six months, the county will be able to build a smaller, less expensive facility while maintaining and even enhancing public safety, the group said in a written petition (PDF) to the commissioners.

“Lancaster County has successfully demonstrated its ability to safely achieve significant reductions in population at the current facility,” it said. “There is no reason to pass up the opportunity to explore how more could be done.”

Commissioner Alice Yoder said she’s on board with the idea. Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino, on the other hand, said they wanted to review it further before committing themselves one way or the other. Both said they’re willing to consider a smaller prison if the data supports it and if building small doesn’t create problems down the road.

(Update, May 8: Responding to Reimagine Justice Lancaster’s proposal, President Judge David Ashworth said via email that the Lancaster County Court system “will not participate in any public discussions” of its internal practices and procedures.)

Since the prison project began, advocates have been pushing for it to be as small as possible. In 2022, the consulting firm CGL, which is assisting the county as its owner’s representative, presented a “needs assessment” projecting a need for roughly 1,200 prison beds in 2050; earlier this year, the commissioners endorsed moving forward with a schematic design that envisions 1,000 beds, but with provisions to expand to 1,200 beds later on if necessary.

The construction project is expected to be the largest ever undertaken by county government, with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The county deserves kudos for its criminal justice reforms to date, said Michelle Batt, founder of the Lancaster Bail Fund. She cited the local treatment courts and reentry programs and the county’s success in the early 2010s in reducing its prison headcount from about 1,300 to the mid-700s, an effort headed by Parsons, then clerk of courts.

“We want to see the building of a new jail as an opportunity to remain on the cutting edge,” Batt said.

Perkowski said he and his fellow advocates have been meeting with court and county representatives, but they haven’t found a venue in which all the relevant issues can be addressed by all the relevant parties. Reimagine Justice’s goal, he said, is not to dictate a particular approach, but to create a forum for “healthy conversation” and consensual adoption of best practices.

The work would parallel and complement the effort launched recently by Judge Merrill Spahn to review court practices and their impact on prison length of stay, he said.

Needs assessment challenged

To make the case for going smaller, Reimagine Justice provided the commissioners an analysis (PDF) of CGL’s needs assessment (PDF) by the think tank Prison Policy Initiative. It contends that CGL’s data indicates a decreasing need for prison beds and that CGL deploys it “misleadingly” to argue otherwise. (The analysis is posted on the Lancaster Bail Fund’s website.)

CGL’s projections, it says, are based on the courts continuing to operate as usual, ignoring the potential for reforms such as “Pathways to Recovery,” the diversion program launched in 2022 by the district attorney’s office. Moreover, PPI says, the projections use an unusually high “peaking factor” without explanation, pushing the capacity forecasts upward. (Peaking factors account for the ebb and flow of prison populations from day to day, helping to ensure that a temporary surge of commitments doesn’t swamp an institution’s capacity.)

“All of this suggests that the projection may be substantially overestimating the needed beds,” PPI said.

“We need a new outlook on these issues as a whole,” said Jessica Lopez, an organizer with the Lancaster Bail Fund. She referenced her own stays in prison (“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody” she said of sleeping on the County Prison gym floor.) and urged the commissioners to make use of the PPI report, which she called a “gift.”

Angie Carpio

Joining the Reimagine Justice group in calling for reform were representatives from the Vera Institute, a national nonprofit battling mass incarceration through its Beyond Jails Initiative; and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which filed a lawsuit over Lancaster County’s bail practices in 2022 and has called for reforming bail practices statewide.

As documented in PPI’s report, pretrial detention — the status of the majority of the County Prison’s inmates — is associated with numerous negative outcomes, including higher rearrest rates, job loss and overdoses, Vera Senior Program Associate Angie Carpio said. Black and Latino individuals are incarcerated at higher rates and have longer average prison stays, according to County Prison data, so it is they who are affected most.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Carpio said.

The ACLU’s Alex Domingos urged the commissioners to “reject the status quo,” and focus resources on community services rather than incarceration.

Commissioners respond

Parsons promised to review the PPI report and Reimagine Justice’s request. He said he’d be happy to save taxpayer money by building a smaller prison, but he cautioned, as he has before, against the idea that building small is a valid way to discourage judges from imprisoning people.

“That is false,” he said.

Nor can courts can responsibly release nonviolent offenders per se, he said: Driving under the influence is classified as a nonviolent crime, but incarcerating a repeat DUI offender might be an appropriate measure to keep that individual from putting others’ lives at risk.

He asked the advocates what bed number they propose and how far off it is from the current 1,000. That’s what the working group would figure out, Carpio answered; at this point, there isn’t enough data.

D’Agostino said he appreciated the group’s pragmatism and collaborative approach. He said he’s open to recommendations provided they’re evidence-based, with a solid track record demonstrating that they work.

The shift that Reimgine Justice is calling for will have budget implications, Yoder said: If money is saved by building a smaller prison, that will be at least partly offset by increases in social services.

Forecasts for those program costs will need to be developed, she said. Given how far the prison project has advanced already, things would have to move quickly, she added.