Beyond a tall, climb-resistant fence topped with thick rows of razor wire is a solitary door leading into the Monroe County Correctional Facility. Behind that unremarkable-looking door are the results of a countywide collaboration that has changed the way the judicial system and law enforcement do business. Monroe County created three units — a central booking center, "virtual courtroom," and central DUI center — that puts more police officers on the street, increases security at the courthouse and saves taxpayers money. It's an ambitious interagency partnership among state police, regional police, local police, county and magisterial district courts, the district attorney's office, sheriff's office and correctional facility.
The key? Pool resources and separate administrative duties from the cop on the street.
In the past, an officer or trooper making an arrest took their prisoner to their headquarters for processing. If the suspect required confinement, the officer or trooper then had to transport them to the jail.
That process could take as much as four hours to complete, Monroe County Correctional Facility Warden Donna Asure said. And during those four hours, that officer or trooper was off the streets, unable to pursue crime-fighting duties.
Now consider this: Monroe County is served by eight separate police outlets — state police from three separate barracks, two regional police departments and three municipal police departments. A lot of law enforcement manpower was being spent on administrative duties instead of patrolling the streets.
Meanwhile, a Monroe County Criminal Justice Advisory Board met regularly to address issues like this. Board members come from all the disciplines involved in the criminal process, including the district attorney's office, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement, probation, parole, mental health and developmental services.
That gave rise to the idea of a central booking facility. But none of the individual agencies had the resources to fund it.
"But by pooling our resources, we could get it done," said Stroud Area Regional Police Chief William Parrish, a board member at the time.
The jail carved out some space — combining two storage closets — to create the central booking center to process prisoners from each of the law enforcement agencies in the county.
It's an oddly shaped triangular room attached to a rectangular room, which has several holding cells for prisoners.
When a suspect is arrested now, the officer brings them to the jail, fills out an initial worksheet and leaves the processing to an officer at the jail, said Lt. Philip Diliberto, who oversees the center at the jail.
"If the prisoner doesn't require arraignment, they are released into the street. Then they get a summons from the district court as to when their hearing would be," he said.
The processing center is staffed by an officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center can occasionally get backed up.
"They just have to wait their turn. They're not going anywhere," Deputy Warden William Carver said.
The room is equipped with two electronic print scanners, one for fingerprints and the other for palm prints. Both make digital records that are loaded into the suspect's computer file, and that information is then sent instantly to the state police to be incorporated into its crime database.
In the past, each law enforcement station house and barracks had to send those records to be retyped for the state police database.
It used to take four hours to arrest someone, take them back to the police station and process them. The central booking center allows those officers to get back on the street sometimes in as little as an hour.
It helps ease the urgency of hiring more police officers.
"Every local municipality is stretched at this point, and at least this way we can get the ones they have back on the roads," Asure said.
Contribution to public safety
There's another benefit of the center.
In the past, each arresting police department had to submit a card with the arrest information to the state police, who would then enter it in a state database. Now, Carver said, the booking center enters the information directly into the database, and it becomes immediately available.
"Once we record something here, the whole world knows about it," said Corrections Officer Joseph Ogden, who is assigned to the central booking center.
The center can also make appointments with the school district for juvenile processing, so students can come in with their parents and preserve confidentiality.
It also takes appointments to do employment fingerprinting for companies.
All this doesn't come free. Each individual processed is assessed a $300 fee if they are convicted. The fee is added to the assessed court costs. Companies are assessed a $25 fee.
It costs the jail between $200,000 and $300,000 a year to operate the center.
"The commissioners are committed to it when we need something," Asure said. "They knew this would not be self-supporting for quite some time, but it was their contribution to public safety."
Along with the central booking center, the newly implemented virtual courtroom has revolutionized the allocation of resources.
It's a simple concept. A room was designated at the jail and equipped with a television monitor, video camera and some seats. The video connection links the prisoners with judges, and can be used for arraignments, conferences and even consultations with defense attorneys. It saves manpower and reduces security risks.
For the public defender's office, it gives overworked attorneys a more efficient way to meet with their clients. It can also be used to conduct hearings with courts in other areas of the state, saving on sheriff's transportation and manpower costs.
It began with the on-call district magistrates, Carver said. One of the county's DJs was always on call 24 hours a day. The DJs were provided equipment to conduct these off-hour arraignments.
"It's also used for county paroles, arraignments, children and youth hearings. The public defender is using it to meet with their clients, saving the public defender the trip back and forth. And the inmate doesn't have to be taken out of the secure perimeter of the jail."
That's no small thing.
When Rockne Newell, the alleged Ross Township shooter, was arraigned at the county courthouse, it required beefed-up security, including extra police officers, SWAT teams and bomb dogs. Even some streets had to be closed off to avoid threats from deranged Newell followers.
His preliminary hearing was held via a virtual courtroom, without all the hoopla, manpower and security concerns.
The jail's virtual courtroom has humble origins. It began with just a laptop with a webcam on the intake desk at the jail. Then it was moved it to a small, 8-foot-by-10-foot closet.
Finally, specialized equipment was purchased, and the virtual courtroom was moved to a small room at the jail with access from both the intake area and the jail's internal housing corridor.
The virtual courtroom has become so popular that additional space for a larger or second "courtroom" is on the jail's wish list.
Each district magistrate has virtual courtroom equipment, and the county courthouse has two that it moves around among judges.
The system has also alleviated some of the overtime in the sheriff's office, which also must respond to the court's needs.
"Video conferencing, which if applicable, cuts down on the number of prisoner transports we would normally have to do for a two-minute hearing," Sheriff Todd Martin said.
It also cuts down on security concerns, wear and tear on vehicles, and it increases the overall efficiencies within the office, Martin said.
In the past, the sheriff's deputies might have traveled eight or 10 hours each way to pick up a prisoner for a hearing that would take less than five minutes — only to turn around to bring him back.
"Now if a video hearing is approved, we don't need to travel or transport the defendant," Martin said. That's a huge time-saver, time that can be used for other duties.
Adjacent to the central booking center at the jail is the county's DUI center. It dates back more than 20 years ago, when it was housed at the old jail by the courthouse.
When a person is arrested for driving under the influence, the police would do their field sobriety at the scene, SARP Chief Parrish said.
Police would normally take the prisoner to the Pocono Medical Center for the blood draw. Each officer would do that for their own arrests.
"So we combined that into a center that was opened on Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m. until 5:30 a.m., the largest opportunity, when there's more people driving under the influence," Parrish said.
It took time for each of the various police agencies to arrest them, take them to the hospital, take a blood draw and find someone responsible to pick them up, keeping the arresting officer from patrolling on the street because they were administratively tied up.
Once the center opened, an officer could drop off a prisoner and be back on patrol.
"The DUI center would be responsible for conducting another field sobriety test, this time on video, and then had two processing officers and a phlebotomist who'd draw the blood right there," Parrish said. "And we hold that person until we could find someone responsible to release that person to."
It's open five nights per week, although it's tentatively scheduled to open seven nights per week as of this month, said Detective Brian Webbe of the Monroe County District Attorney's office.
Central Booking/DUI centers savings
With all the separate agencies involved with central booking, it's difficult to determine exactly how much manpower and money the center saved the county and taxpayers.
Nevertheless, officials did, as a requirement of the grants the county receives to help run the facility. Here's a breakdown:
Arrests processed: 4,017
Police manpower hours saved (based on two hours per processing): 2,007