Editor's note: This story had been updated to include a statement from the county court's president judge.

A group of criminal justice reform advocates Tuesday called on Lancaster County commissioners to form a working group to look at ways to reduce incarcerations as the county plans to build a new prison.

The coalition, calling itself Reimagine Justice Lancaster, contends a “justice and safety working group” could make policy recommendations that would reduce the number of incarcerated people, allowing the county to build a smaller prison.

Michelle Batt, president of the Lancaster Bail Fund and a member of the coalition, lauded county officials for taking steps over the years to reduce the number of people in the county prison and said building a new prison presents an opportunity to continue that work.

“We are using our jail primarily as a holding facility,” said Batt, adding that only about 1 in 10 people in the county prison have been convicted of a crime and are serving a sentence. “The vast majority of people in there are being held on an accusation alone and are disproportionately Black, poor, suffering from substance use and mental health disorders and are charged with low-level or noncriminal offenses.”

Batt, an attorney, said building a new prison represents “a juncture where we have an opportunity to have a conversation as a community about what could be implemented in our communities — community-based programs, more services, more supports — that might prevent our perceived need to rely on incarceration. Because what we’re doing isn’t necessarily addressing the underlying causes of what we are choosing to criminalize in behavior.”

Only Commissioner Alice Yoder, the newly elected Democratic minority commissioner, said she supported creating a working group. Republican Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino did not say whether they favored or opposed a working group, but suggested there have been, and will continue to be, opportunities for input as prison planning continues.

Parsons said he’s “happy to build a smaller prison because I don’t like to spend county money, as many of you know, but that’s not necessarily the responsible thing to do when you’re planning for a facility that’s going to last generations into the future.”

The commissioners “don’t control who’s incarcerated. That’s the courts … but ultimately, we have to do our best to project what the courts are going to do,” he said. “And the idea that somehow the courts are going to stop incarcerating all nonviolent criminals, it’s not something that’s going to happen. If you have a repeat DUI offender who’s likely to kill someone on the roads of our county, they are going to be incarcerated. I don’t see that changing.”

D’Agostino said he would read the 16-page report the group presented. 

Yoder said data, and questions based on data, would drive the commissioners’ decision regarding prison size. Building a smaller prison and investing in programming would carry its own costs, she said.

President Judge David Ashworth said the court system won't participate.

In an emailed statement, he said: 

"As I have repeatedly stated at Prison Board and elsewhere, the court system operates pursuant to the directives of the Legislature (statutes, laws, etc.), our Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Rules of Criminal Procedure, case law, etc.) and the U. S. Supreme Court. It does not operate pursuant to the “policy recommendations” of advocacy groups, community action committees or individual agendas. Of course, the Commissioners agree they do not have authority over how the court functions. 

The independence of the judiciary as the third branch of government is paramount. We have initiated a review of our system (as we have done periodically over the years) to determine what changes, if any, can be made to improve efficiencies in light of recent legislation and directives from our Supreme Court. As President Judge, I have asked Judge (Merrill) Spahn to spearhead this effort. This is NOT in response to the building of the new Correctional Facility. 

The Court is encouraged by community organizations, health care providers, treatment providers as well as county government engaging in discussions among themselves on how to become more engaged in providing services to reduce crime, recidivism, and incarceration. However, none of these organizations will be involved in the Court’s internal discussions. While we will take all reasonable recommendations under advisement, the Court will not participate in any public discussions to “review criminal court systems and case-processing practices, including pre-arrest procedures and probation practices.” That task is solely the responsibility of the Judiciary and its designees. I have explained many times that if any of these groups wish to effect change in the court system, they should direct their efforts to the Legislature."

Coalition member Beth Reese of Lancaster Township said a justice and safety working group should include people impacted by the criminal justice system, service providers and other stakeholders across the whole criminal justice system, from prevention to reentry.

Another coalition member, the Rev. Jason Perkowski, of Faith United Methodist Church in Lititz, said he and others have been at past meetings and forums about the new prison.

“Those have all been great, but it’s not robust enough of a conversation,” he said. “And that’s why we’re asking you today to put together a working group that does bring in all of these players and all of these varieties of issues that are interconnected with one another, so that we can put together the best practices that will have so many benefits to the people of Lancaster County.”

What the report shows

Right now, the county plans to build a prison with about 1,000 beds, but with the potential to expand capacity to about 1,200 beds. 

The 1,200 figure was suggested by the county’s consultant for the new prison project, Miami-based CGL. The commissioners have reduced it to about 1,000, but that number is not set in stone.

In support of their case, Reimagine Justice Lancaster presented the commissioners with a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit public-policy think tank based in Massachusetts, evaluating CGL’s assessment of the county’s prison needs.

The nonprofit has been a prominent researcher for advocates pushing for criminal justice reform around the nation.

In its 16-page report, Prison Policy Initiative researchers wrote that CGL’s data showed an overall trend of falling crime rates in Lancaster County, both violent and nonviolent, yet the assessment predicted a modest jail population increase over time.

“The needs assessment suggests that Lancaster County is best served by a jail that is substantially larger than the one it has,” the Prison Policy Initiative wrote. “But careful consideration of the facts in the assessment itself leads to the opposite conclusion.”

The think tank’s analysis also parsed CGL’s data to generate new findings about the county’s criminal courts.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Black defendants stay in Lancaster County Prison 88% longer on average than their white counterparts. For Latinos, the findings are worse: Their length of stay in the prison was 94% longer than whites on average.

Black and Latino defendants stayed in the prison 30 days longer in 2022 than they did in 2019, according to the think tank.

“It should be investigated and corrected,” the think tank said.

The Prison Policy Initiative also targeted probation and parole violations as an unnecessarily large source of county prison stays, and said CGL’s data showed 31% of the Lancaster County Prison population in September 2022 consisted of parole and probation violators.

“Lancaster County should engage in an analysis of which probation conditions are most often putting people back in jail,” the report says, “and how to better help people on probation comply, including by loosening unnecessary restrictions, providing more supports like transportation help and payment plans for fees, and using graduated sanctions for violations rather than resorting to incarceration as punishment.”

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