Luzerne County reviewing ways to help courts set bail

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Greenwald -

Luzerne County taxpayers spend approximately $110 per day for each offender lodged in the county prison.

But there’s also a price for the accused if they can’t make bail, said county Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald.

More than three days behind bars could cause them to lose their jobs and rental housing or jeopardize custody of their children.

“There’s a societal cost to having people incarcerated for a period of time longer than necessary,” Greenwald said. “It has the potential to begin a huge downward spiral that people never get out of.”

In a push to ensure bail amounts and alternatives are fully explored, Greenwald’s office has launched an initiative to adopt a “verified risk assessment tool.”

Such tools involve customized computer algorithms that digest a myriad of data about the accused to formulate an opinion of their risk. It essentially predicts the likelihood they will appear for their next scheduled court hearing and not harm the public if they remain on the streets as they await adjudication, he said.

Some obvious general factors that would be analyzed by the tool include criminal history, the nature of the crime and any past failures to appear, Greenwald said.

Different types of tools are available and have been implemented in other areas.

A careful review is necessary to ensure prospective assessment tools are not biased based on gender, race or wealth, Greenwald explained.

He stressed the tool would be intended to assist district judges in setting bail.

“It’s designed to add to or supplement their own discretion and experience. It’s not meant to take away their decision-making,” he said.

County Manager C. David Pedri, an attorney and former county assistant district attorney, highlighted the bail effort in his recent “state of the county” report, saying the Public Defender’s Office is working on the initiative with the courts, probation and pretrial services, the district attorney and day reporting center.

“As a prosecutor, I learned that the goal of the criminal system in Pennsylvania is justice — justice for victims as well as the accused,” Pedri said Friday. “A well thought out and uniform bail risk assessment tool will allow the county to be fair and impartial while still protecting our citizens.”

The public defender said the issue weighed on his mind because he observed people held in prison on misdemeanors because they could not afford bail set as low as $500.

‘Unnecessary incarceration’

A national debate has erupted due to concerns the cash bail system unfairly favors those with financial means.

Greenwald said he suggested exploration of the risk tool when the county formed a prison population task force in September 2016.

The group has been working on initiatives to target overcrowding and reduce the 60 percent of county inmates who are lodged awaiting trial, as opposed to serving sentences.

The prison was designed to hold up to 505 inmates but typically has been at or above capacity in recent years. The average population was 464 in January, according to Pedri’s latest division head report.

The average monthly population was 136 at the county’s minimal offenders building, which is located nearby, also in Wilkes-Barre, the report said.

County court officials and other offices participating in the task force have embraced the bail idea, Greenwald said. A representative of Allegheny County is expected to speak to some county officials about an assessment tool that was implemented there several years ago, he noted.

“The hope of the people on the committee in adopting this tool is that it will reduce the prison population. But from my perspective, it’s just as important to try to reduce the effect that prolonged or unnecessary incarceration has on people,” Greenwald said.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.