Across the nation, the inmate population in county jails is growing to problematic levels. As a result, many counties are creating alternatives to incarceration, such as day reporting centers.

Nationally, jails now operate at 95 percent capacity, a dangerously high level according to experts like Ken Kerle, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice expert. When jails are full, inmate and staff safety is jeopardized, staffing costs rise and jails' facilities degrade prematurely. “When a jail population reaches 90 percent of the facility's capacity, day-to-day operations get tricky,” Kerle says.

The most common strategy to prevent jail overcrowding is expanding jail facilities, but that can be expensive. In 2001, the Franklin County Jail in Chambersburg, Pa., was reaching its limit, and Warden John Wetzel and county commissioners considered expansion. The 194-bed jail went well beyond its rated capacity, surging to more than 400 inmates last year. “When we received construction cost estimates of $30,000 to $50,000 per bed, it tuned us into adding alternatives to detention,” Wetzel says. Officials decided to open a community-based day reporting center that would allow the county to build a smaller, more affordable jail, saving the county $10 million, Wetzel says.

Day reporting centers are places to which offenders who are on pretrial release, probation or parole are required to appear regularly. Through treatment and training, the centers provide an intermediate sanction for, and reduce recidivism by, low-risk offenders. Most people referred to the centers have drug and alcohol problems and are closely monitored as part of a 90- to 180- day program with random drug screens and breathalyzers. The centers also offer classes in anger management, substance abuse, life skills, cognitive skills, and employment and educational training. The Washington-based Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 4,747 day reporting centers existed nationwide in 2005, although few are as intensive as Franklin County's program.

The Franklin County center, which opened in April, will manage up to 200 offenders when fully implemented. The jail inmate population has dropped to 286 inmates since the center opened, 100 less than last year.

In 2000, Sedgwick County, Kan., added almost 600 beds to its jail at a cost of $37.5 million. But, by 2005, the county again needed to expand the jail. Rather than simply add more beds, the county opened a day reporting center in Wichita, Kan., that will eventually see 350 offenders. Sedgwick County's day reporting center offers similar programs to Franklin County's, with intensive supervision, regular drug and alcohol screens and treatment and training to match the specific needs of offenders.

Sedgwick County also incorporated other jail-count reduction measures such as creating a mental health diversion program and mental health court; expanding pretrial services; and enhancing the sheriff's inmate release process. “If we can get to the offender earlier and fix the root problem, we'll benefit in the long run,” says Mark Masterson, director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections. “If we do not try something different, we can expect the same results.”

Patrick Hyde is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.