The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


June 8, 2013

Center showing promise: Cambria inmates stay out of jail by checking in daily

— Rather than waking up every morning in a small cell with steel bars for a door, dozens of Cambria County residents are waking up in their own beds and heading to the day reporting center.

Once there, they check in and maybe get a drug or alcohol test. Some stick around for any number of programs. Many head off for a full day’s work at income-producing jobs.

This month, the reporting center, located in renovated space on the first floor of the Cambria County services building, is celebrating its first year anniversary, and the success stories are starting to stack up.

“I really feel good (that) we have this option,” Cambria County President Judge Timothy Creany said. “We’re to the point defendants and defense lawyers are asking for it.”

This new approach in Cambria County’s criminal justice system is aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders from breaking the law again while keeping them out of a jail cell.

While it’s too early to declare the reporting center an overwhelming success, every indication is that it is headed in the right direction, keeping people from continuing their lives of crime – and communities – safer, officials said.

Targeted are those defendants – referred to as clients at the center – convicted of crimes such as DUI, drug violations and burglaries. County judges have refused to sentence offenders of violent crimes, sex offenders and those who have committed serious property crimes, Creany said.

A secondary goal is to free prison beds at the county lock-up, beds that will stay available for rental to out-of-county inmates.

With 75 defendants now reporting to the center daily and a capacity to handle as many as 25 more, Creany said the first year shows one-third have done well.

A second one-third have made significant effort, while about one-third have washed out of the program.

“We’re watching to see what happens. The statistics before were not good,” he said.

The program provides daily check-ins, drug and alcohol testing, abuse counseling, anger management, job readiness and aftercare, a few of the more than dozen services available to the clients, said Stacy Morris, former Cambria County probation officer, now reporting center director.

“As word gets around, they’re seeing the success. We have a lot of people who asked to be in it,” Morris said. “It’s strict. They are held accountable and we don’t accept excuses.”

But steps are taken to give the center anything but a prison environment, part of the plan to change perception, said John Hogan, program manager.

“Society tells us, if we can change the way a person thinks, we can change their behavior,” he said.

From the viewpoint of the courts and the impact on county residents, things look pretty good, said  president Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder.

“In terms of what it’s done for the county and the options for the judges, I think the day reporting center is a huge success,” Lengenfelder said. “We were hoping by end of the first year they would be over 50, and it is now at the 75 point.”

Keeping a client at the center costs the county considerably less than housing that same person in the prison, Lengenfelder said.

Estimates made in 2012 are that it costs the county $24 a day to keep a person in the day reporting center, $31 less than the $55 a day to house that person in the county prison,

But startup and regular operating costs at the center have been significant, especially since a large startup grant and some smaller grants never materialized, he said.

The commissioners have not ruled out the possibility of accepting clients into the program from one or more smaller counties in the area as a way of defraying some of the costs.

Adding to concerns of county officials is the less-than-anticipated use of county prison beds by out-of-county agencies.

“Our numbers of out-of-county inmates at the prison are going down. It (the revenue) hasn’t grown the way we expected it to,” Lengenfelder said.

The greatest reason for a drop in revenue is decline in inmates being brought in by federal marshalls and illegal immigrants being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement –  known as ICE, Lengenfelder said.

County officials hope to improve the prison’s revenue through increased use by the state Department of Corrections housing a greater number of state parole violators in Cambria County rather than sending them to the pricier state prisons.

“I do feel good about the (day reporting) program, but they say we can’t determine the rate of recidivism until we’ve been at it for three years,” Lengenfelder said. “I feel there is a real opportunity to benefit the community along with the clients.”

Opening the center came with some controversy starting with the proposed initial location.

The former board of commissioners purchased a vacant office building on Lake Rowena Drive in Ebensburg for $250,000 from MTS Realty.

Citing some public opposition to the reporting center in town, the new board taking office in January 2012 put the building on the market and eventually sold it for $225,000 – a $25,000 loss.

BI, a GEO Group company, has contracted with the county to operate the facility for $250,000 annually. County residents have been hired to staff the center.

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