SUNBURY - County commissioners, judges and police from several municipalities met Thursday to voice support for a holding cell at the county jail that will save the county and communities significant money while allowing the court to operate more expeditiously.

"We are here today to help all the police officers in Northumberland County, the municipalities and county save money," said Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi.

At the conclusion of their 25-minute press conference, Commissioners Clausi, Richard Shoch and Stephen Bridy agreed to pass a resolution at a future meeting approving the holding cell system, which will go into effect Jan. 1 on a six-month probationary basis.

Bridy expects the holding cell that is already available at the prison to save the county approximately $430,000 in prisoner housing costs and other expenses. The municipalities are expected to save thousands of dollars in overtime and transportation costs while allowing officers to remain on patrol in their respective communities.

The only cost to the county will be paying a correctional officer to guard prisoners in the holding cell.

Clausi, who said the prison board also must approve the move, commended Magisterial District Judges John Gembic III of Shamokin and Hugh Jones of Mount Carmel for developing the idea. Under the holding cell system, those who commit crimes during late evening or early morning hours will be taken by police to the prison, where they will be held for arraignment the next day by the magisterial district judge in whose jurisdiction the crime occurred.

Chance to cool down

Gembic said the holding cell has been discussed for a decade but never implemented. "It would allow defendants to cool down before facing a judge, especially people involved in domestic disturbances," Gembic said.

"The defendants would go before a judge who would be more familiar with their background than a judge from the other end of the county. This will not only reduce the prison population and provide more police protection on the streets, but it will also speed up the criminal justice system," he added.

Gembic said arraigning and conducting preliminary hearings for defendants as soon as possible will reduce the backlog of cases.

For inmates charged with less serious crimes, such as probation violations, video arraignments benefit defendants because they don't have to wait several days to go personally in front of a judge. Transportation and paperwork issues can sometimes cause delays.

Gembic estimated the average stay in prison for an inmate is two weeks.

"By video arraigning them and conducting their hearings as quick as possible, the time they spend in prison can be cut in half," he said.

Jones agreed it could decrease the amount of time criminals are incarcerated, depending on the severity of their charges.

"It's a win-win situation for everyone," he said.

'Great tool'

Sunbury Police Chief Steve Mazzeo, who was among about a dozen police officers in attendance, said, "This is a tremendous gift from the commissioners and a great tool for law enforcement. We will work out any issues. This system will work and won't be abused. I'm 100 percent sure of that."

Sgt. Frederick Dyroff, commanding officer at the state police station at Milton, said, "This is a great idea. We use a holding cell now in Montour County. It's a nice tool to have in our chest."

Shamokin Police Chief Edward Griffiths and Mount Carmel Chief of Police Todd Owens said their departments fully support a holding cell, citing the cost savings and opportunity for better police protection.

Bridy added, "Crime will be reduced and the county and municipalities will save money. It will make the county safer."

"This will result in good savings for police and communities in the county," Shoch said. "Savings to your (municipal) taxpayers is a savings to our (county) taxpayers."

Deputy Court Administrator Kevin O'Hearn said President Judge Robert B. Sacavage supports the holding cell system 100 percent and believes it will be successful. The judge was unable to attend the brief press conference because he had a full court schedule.

Bridy said the creation of a holding cell is the first of a two-step system the county hopes to put in place to save costs and reduce the prison population. He said a central booking center at the prison that involves expensive equipment also is being studied.