ShareThis Page

Enrollment in jail alternative program down 50% since 2014

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Westmoreland County's day reporting center added seven enrollees in January, continuing a trend of fewer criminal defendants being ordered to receive intensive drug and alcohol treatment instead of going to jail.

Enrollment has dropped since 2014, with the center operating around 60 percent capacity and leaving officials at a loss as to why.

“I don't have an answer for it,” said Sharon Bold, director of the county's Department of Adult Probation and Parole, which oversees the program.

When the center opened in November 2010, officials hoped it would help a court system overflowing with drug and alcohol cases and a growing inmate population at the county jail.

In the past five years, new criminal cases in the county steadily grew from just under 4,900 in 2011 to 6,000 last year. Meanwhile, inmate population has risen from an average of 537 in 2011 to 644 at the end of January.

Enrollment at the day reporting center reached a high of 259 participants in 2014. It has decreased each year since, with 205 defendants admitted in 2015 and 130 last year, Bold said.

In January, the program had 62 people enrolled — including the seven new participants, she said.

“We would like to see more people have the opportunity to move through the program,” said Bold, who indicated that probation officials want to meet soon with Southwest Pennsylvania Human Resources.

The Charleroi-based nonprofit hosts the center in its building on South Maple Avenue in Greensburg. Participants report up to five days a week, spending as much as eight hours daily in treatment and other counseling services.

Westmoreland County used a grant in 2010 to establish the center and paid SPHS $150,000 to manage the program through 2012, when operations were taken over by the county.

Of the 896 defendants who enrolled since 2012, 301 completed the program, according to statistics from the probation department.

Two probation officers staff the center along with two aides who oversee the supervision of participants and conduct drug and alcohol tests. SPHS staff provides counseling services.

The agency is paid for its work at the center through each participant's private insurance, said Luther Sheets, SPHS chief operating officer.

“As to the question of why the numbers of enrollees at the (center) are down, we're looking into it further,” Sheets said. “But, at first glance, it would seem to indicate that it is a matter of folks needing a higher level of care, inpatient or halfway house. With the Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania, inpatient options were opened up for a lot of folks.”

Nearly 700,000 additional Pennsylvanians enrolled since 2015, when the state expanded its Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Sheets suggested the treatment needs of defendants have increased while insurance reimbursements for the program have declined.

The county has paid SPHS nearly $3 million since 2010 to provide a variety of services, including all court-ordered drug and alcohol assessments of criminal defendants, according to financial records from the county controller's office.

Judges and probation officials use those assessments to determine sentences and treatments, if necessary. Judges can sentence defendants directly to the day reporting center, but most defer to probation officials and SPHS counselors for treatment recommendations.

President Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. speculated that center enrollment could have suffered from the county's drug court program, which started last year and serves up to 50 participants. Both programs provide many of the same services. Still, the day reporting center is an important resource, McCormick said.

“When we were at full strength and offered all of the programs, it was a good option,” he said. “It is a great tool, but we have to look at it and make it a more viable tool.”

When the center opened, it offered an array of social service programs in addition to drug and alcohol counseling and probation services. Those included basic adult education classes, job training and mental health counseling as well as courses in nutrition, parenting, anger management and domestic and sexual abuse education.

Outside of probation supervision, participants now are offered nutrition classes and yoga in addition to addiction treatment, said Drug Court Supervisor Christy Scott.

Originally, county officials wanted to place up to 200 defendants in the center each year. The scope was scaled back following a series of arrests in 2011 after undercover investigators found participants dealing drugs at the facility.

Following a short moratorium, the program rebooted in 2012 with a cap of 100 participants.

“Maybe it's time for another assessment of the program,” said Tim Phillips, executive director of the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force. “I think there is room for improvement.”

County commissioners said they plan to meet with the probation department and SPHS to investigate the issue.

“The one thing we can confidently say is the jail is not the best place for these people,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.