High Marks For Potter County Criminal Justice Forays
A Potter County native who now heads the Pa. Board of Probation and Parole is impressed with criminal justice reforms that have been put into place back home. “Potter County is a great example of what can be accomplished when you take the initiative,” according to Leo Dunn, appointed executive director of the board last March. He’s referring to the county’s “specialty courts” for criminal defendants with addiction to alcohol or other drugs, as well as a new pre-trial diversion program designed to reduce the number of criminal defendants who end up in jail. “There are a lot of new treatment resources available that counties such as Potter have elected to take advantage of, and with a great degree of success,” Dunn said. “Specialty courts, job training, housing options and substance abuse counseling are some of the tools that work . . . They’re having a very positive impact on reducing recidivism.” Number of inmates in the state prison system has fallen from 51,757 in 2012 to 49,900 today. Similar reductions have taken hold in a number of county jails.
Primary goal of the specialty courts and diversion program is to address individuals’ needs with a customized treatment plan and intensive supervision by the Potter County Probation Department. Senior Judge John Leete presides over both of the specialty courts. Overarching goal of the initiatives is to improve public safety by reducing the number of repeat offenders.
Dunn said one consequence of lowering the recidivism rate has been a marked increase in the number of people being monitored on probation and parole, which requires additional staff and caseloads at both the statewide and county levels. Since 2012, the ranks of state parolees grew by almost 6,500, to nearly 32,000. Dunn said the state has responded by hiring more staff, bringing the average parole agent caseload from 80 clients to 50. At the same time, Potter County has also added to its staff in the Probation Department.
“The more time officers have to spend with each individual on probation or parole, the better the outcomes will be,” Dunn explained. “We’re focusing on safely managing people in the community and getting them reintegrated.” Dunn said he’s aware that many smaller counties don’t have the financial resources to cover additional staffing. The Board of Probation and Parole is pushing to have $16.2 million in federal funds it currently administers to the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency, so it can be distributed to counties. “I’m very supportive of counties having more autonomy and being allowed to guide their own ship,” the director said. “We’ll continue to support local initiatives that keep people out of jail and on a path to success.”