Program aims at transitioning state inmates through Jefferson County

BROOKVILLE — Monday, the Jefferson County Jail Board discussed a program that could bring state inmates back to their counties of residence for the final six months of their prison terms.

Jefferson County Jail Warden Tom Elbel said the state Department of Corrections (DOC) has contacted him, and he expressed interest in participating in the program, which is designed to assimilate state inmates into their hometown communities prior to release, said Susan Bensinger, deputy DOC press secretary.

Explaining the program Monday, Bensinger said a state inmate originally from Jefferson County would be transferred to the Jefferson County jail about six months prior to release from prison.

While at the county jail, that inmate would be granted work release and reintegrated into the community. The DOC has started a pilot program in York County and is now looking to expand that program.

"Traditionally, the county ties to the local community are much stronger than the state ties," Bensinger said. "They are better equipped to reintegrate an inmate into the county."

Bensinger said county jails are currently filling out surveys concerning interest in the program, asking if the county would be able to take on state inmates.

"What are the efforts that need to be made?" Bensinger said. "Do they have the bed space and the staff? There are a lot of components that need to be investigated."

Elbel said he filled out the survey and is interested in the program. He said he did not have a time frame as to when the program would begin.
"This could be a year away, several weeks or several months," he said. "It might not be something that happens this year, but we have to keep our options open."

Elbel said he could see some benefits from the program, saying the state is "looking for a way to get them back into the county and get them a job, rather than just opening the doors on their release date. The feeling is, that way, they may not be back to prison."

Of course, there are many details that have to be ironed out. For instance, the question remains about how the county will be paid its fee for housing an out-of-county inmate. Currently, the county charges $55 per day, per inmate housed from neighboring counties or from the state.
Elbel said he would expect to receive that money if the jail housed state inmates, but Bensinger said that "is something that is going to be discussed."

She said there would likely be a fee, but "the dollar amount would have to be decided on during this discussion phase."

Assuming the county is still involved after the discussion phase, another question remains as to which entity would be responsible for supervision of the inmate during work release and probation — the county or the state.

Elbel said supervision would be administered by the state.

"They would have their own monitor and own recorder for that," he said. "They could possibly institute a parole agent serving several counties in one area."

However, Bensinger said, "Actual supervision during work release would be the duty of the county," and that inmates would have dual supervision during the transfer period, but they would be transitioned to the county's supervision.

Jail Board member Paul Corbin cited concerns about the county's role in supervision, even without communication with Bensinger.

"We have to look out for Jefferson County, that down the road, this doesn't cost us a lot of money for extra probation officers and extra time," he said.

There are also questions regarding the county's authority to refuse inmates and return them to the state.

Elbel said the inmates would be moved to Jefferson County jail, and the jail administration would have two weeks to evaluate the inmate and decide whether to house or return him or her.

Bensinger could not confirm that policy, but said the county's district attorney and sentencing judge would be consulted during the process. The district attorney would not have the authority to grant or revoke work-release status, though.

"That will have been pre-determined from the original sentence," Bensinger said.

Bensinger said one of the largest concerns would be whether the county jails have enough room for state inmates.

Currently, Jefferson County jail houses 21 inmates from neighboring counties, including Elk, McKean and Cameron. Jefferson County has few extra beds because of those transfers.

Also, the fact that Elk, McKean and Cameron counties are transferring inmates means that those facilities are at capacity and cannot take on more inmates.

"There are a lot of reasons why it may or may not work," Bensinger said. "Usually though, the counties are much better equipped at offering these programs that help inmates return."