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Potter County Criminal Justice Reforms Seen As Model

June 17th, 2017

Attorney Barbara Zemlock describes the “whole new world of county jail administration.”

Potter County was represented during a daylong workshop in State College on a series criminal justice reforms that have been spreading throughout the state and across the nation because of their demonstrated success. When the changes are implemented effectively, they have been shown to reduce costs, lower jail populations, enhance public safety, and create a positive ripple effect on families and communities. At the foundation of the reforms are new ways of dealing with criminal offenders who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, as well as those with diagnosed mental illness. Approximately 70 percent of a typical county’s criminal court docket is comprised of offenders who meet one or more of those criteria.

Friday’s workshop was sponsored by the Pa. Comprehensive Behavioral Health/Criminal Justice Task Force. Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel is a member of the task force and was joined at the workshop by Colleen Wilber, director of drug and alcohol programs at Potter County Human Services; Angela Milford, deputy warden at the Potter County Jail; and Danielle Gietler, assistant administrator with the Potter County Probation Department. Heimel presented an overview of his role as the county’s liaison with national and state organizations dedicated to criminal justice reforms, as well as a researcher focused on best practices and networking with peers in multiple states. Wilber summarized the county’s early forays into innovative programs such as “specialty courts” for drug/alcohol addicts who meet criteria, and a pre-trial diversion program that can steer some offenders toward alternatives to prosecution and incarceration. She emphasized that reforms can only work when all elements of the criminal justice system work as a team. Wilber also pointed out the importance of seeking state, federal and/or foundation grants to cover the expenses.

Attendees heard a detailed and eye-opening report from attorney Barbara A. Zemlock from the County Commissioners Assn. of Pa. on “risk management,” and the greater scrutiny that├é┬ácounty jails are facing as the result of recent court decisions and changes in state laws. She emphasized that county jail administrators who fail to meet the standards for medical care — including treatment for addiction and mental health issues — officer training, and disciplinary procedures can be found liable for the consequences. There are now precedents for multi-million dollar judgments against counties and/or third-party providers who fail to comply, Zemlock added. She urged jail wardens and solicitors to fully familiarize themselves with what she termed “a whole new world of county jail administration.”

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