COUDERSPORT — Potter County Commissioners discussed Smart Justice initiatives, a new focus for Pennsylvania Downtown Center board members and a pledge of financial support for a local education program during their regular meeting held Thursday in Coudersport.

Commissioners and criminal justice officials held the first summit to begin coordinating efforts and resources between several new county criminal justice programs, some of which will be used as models for other counties seeking similar restructuring efforts. Commissioners, the public defender, judges and other officials will continue to collaborate.

Commissioner Paul Heimel stated that the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP) Comprehensive Behavioral Health Task Force has compiled the results of its inquiries into reforms and restructuring of the criminal justice system at the state level. The data will be shared with Gov. Tom Wolf and members of the state House and Senate in the near future.

The panel is made up of 35 representatives from the state legislature, judicial system and governor’s office along with county/local government representatives and other criminal justice stakeholders.

Heimel stated that he was asked to be part of the committee “because the things we’re doing in Potter County are innovative, especially for a rural community,” he said. “We’ve used founded, research-based information” to create the recommendations, which are aimed at reducing jail/prison populations by dealing with the individual’s issues, such as drugs, mental health or a lack of education, and reduce recidivism.

One of the newest initiatives being studied in the criminal justice system are reforms to pre-trial incarceration methods. It is believed that nearly 60 percent of inmates in local jails are there awaiting trial, not for punitive reasons.

Potter County officials are studying a pre-trial diversion program currently to see if the measures can be utilized locally.

“Some people are being ushered into jail without determining whether it’s necessary to incarcerate them,” said Heimel. “There is a better way to do this.”

Commissioner Susan Kefover stated that the Pennsylvania Downtown Center board is being called upon to work with communities to help find solutions to the drug epidemic that is affecting many areas of the state and nation.

“The drug epidemic is reaching into every facet of life and government and there is beginning to be a response,” said Kefover. The board is to look into and pursue grants that would help struggling communities, encouraging projects as simple as increasing recreation opportunities for area youth.

Commissioners approved a $25,000 allocation from the Act 13 Unconventional Well Drilling Fees to cover a portion of funding for a Business Education Liaison that was previously funded by the Seneca Highlands Career and Technical Center (CTC). The expenditure is allowable through the Workforce Development line item.

The money was not included in the CTC budget this year, and the Potter County Education Council (PCEC) requested funds to help keep the program afloat until a new funding source can be found.

All three commissioners showed support for the program which helps connect students with businesses and identify pathways into careers. A second mentoring program was also at risk due to the funding loss. The PCEC also contributes $25,000 to the program annually, and additional funds come from the Bradford School District.

Commissioners approved a sponsor agreement with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps for upcoming community service projects in Austin and Ulysses. Volunteers will construct flower boxes in both communities and assist with completion of sculpture at the Austin Dam. The county solicitor reviewed the document and relayed to commissioners that it was a standard agreement, set to expire on Nov. 4.

An agreement was approved with the County of Tioga for equipment and dispatching services for 911 calls. The five year agreement slightly increases costs from $70,000 last year to $72,100 for 2016. After that, the rate will increase by 3 percent each year, and in 2020 the county will pay $81,149. Commissioners believe that this is a beneficial partnership as it would cost much more to run an independent facility.

The next meeting of the Potter County Commissioners will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 1 at the Gunzburger Building in Coudersport.

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