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County jail experiences overcrowding

| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

To reduce crowding at the Allegheny County Jail, county judges could be asked to send more inmates to state prisons.

The county jail was built under court order in 1995 to ideally hold 2,400 inmates. It now averages about 2,500 inmates each day. Among the inmates last week were 28 with so-called state sentences — those serving maximum sentences of at least two years and no more than five years for low-level felonies, according to county figures. Judges have the choice of sending these inmates to state prisons instead of the county jail.

The number of state sentence inmates in the jail might seem small, but there were 231 such inmates sent to the jail between 1998 and 2000, the most recent years that figures were available from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning wants county judges to send nearly all these inmates to state prisons. Manning heads the Jail Oversight Board, a committee studying jail crowding.

The group expects to make its recommendations at the board's Feb. 6 meeting.

"The idea has merit," said county Chief Executive Jim Roddey, who has warned the county cannot afford to build another jail. "But the state has their own overcrowding problems, so we could just be shifting the problem. And we cannot dictate to the judges what to do here. They have their own prerogative."

The jail cost $140 million, but is on a small site on Second Avenue, Downtown, and cannot be easily expanded.

The county built the jail after a federal court order in 1990. That allowed the county to close a jail annex that had been opened in 1985 to relieve crowding in the century-old jail on Ross Street, which also was closed. U.S. District Judge Maurice Cohill issued the order on a lawsuit that said the old jail was dangerously crowded.

State sentence inmates helped fuel crowding at the new jail, which has seen its average daily population skyrocket from 1,500 when it opened in 1995.

The jail's capacity can be increased to 3,000 by adding bunks to some cells while keeping single-bunk cells for the violent and mentally troubled. To house more than 3,000 inmates, bunks would have to be put in gyms or in common areas.

Manning said he believes most of the county's Common Pleas judges would go along with the idea of sending more inmates to state prisons. But Common Pleas President Judge Robert Kelly said he isn't sure how judges might react.

"Sentencing is one of the most difficult things that a judge has to do," he said. "I guess you can debate this idea with your fellow judges, which is what Judge Manning intends to do."

Judges have a choice of jail or prison when they sentence offenders to two to five years. All maximum sentences of less than two years must be served in the jail. Prisoners sentenced to more than five years must go to state prisons.

Roddey said the county also must look at other ways to divert convicts from its jail.

"We have to look at other approaches, like more alternative sentencing to halfway houses and other work release, although these services still cost money," he said. "We can also consider putting more inmates on house arrest and the increased use of electronic monitoring of these inmates."

In Allegheny County, about a quarter of state sentence convicts went to county jail between 1998 and 2000 — about the average for all counties statewide. Of 819 state sentence inmates, 231 got county jail time, with the rest going to prison, according to the state Commission on Sentencing.

State sentence inmates taking up local jail cells is a growing problem for counties, said Rachel Hofstetter, director of government relations for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, based in Harrisburg.

"County jails were never intended to be state prisons. We are feeling the strain more and more, as inmates come into local jails needing mental health, substance abuse and other services," Hofstetter said.

Statewide, about 3,500 state sentence inmates were sent to jails between 1998 and 2000, according to state commission figures. That meant these inmates cost local taxpayers at least $60 million, based on a statewide average $46.52 a day to keep someone in jail, Hofstetter said.

It costs nearly double to keep someone in prison: The state budgeted about $90 a day for each inmate in 2002.

It costs Allegheny County about $53 a day to keep an inmate in jail.

Forcing more inmates into state prisons would just shift the crowding problem onto the state, which recently saw its inmate population top 40,000 for the first time. The state built eight prisons in the 1990s.

If Allegheny County begins shipping more inmates to prisons, and other counties follow suit, there could be problems, said Susan McNaughton a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.

"Our population is growing," McNaughton said, "and any change (by the counties) would obviously add to that growth."

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