Center County is seeking a grant to add a social worker to the office of the public defender

The Center County Courthouse in Bellefonte. Photo of Geoff Rushton |

Center County is seeking grants to add a social worker to the public defender’s office who would coordinate a range of client services beyond the court system.

The County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a request from the Public Defender and Criminal Justice Planning Offices to seek up to $250,000 in federal funding Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

“We seek to improve coordination and access to services for people with mental health/behavioral health/developmental disabilities and/or substance use disorders who encounter the system by providing and coordinating comprehensive supports for individuals, such as improving access to affordable and supportive housing. , employment, referral to mental or behavioral health treatment services,” said Karri Hull, Director of Criminal Justice Planning.

A social worker position was identified as a CJP priority during strategic planning in 2020, Hull said, and the department was waiting for the right funding opportunity.

The grant would cover the salary, benefits and supplies of a new employee housed in the public defender’s office. If granted, funding would begin on October 1 and continue until September 30, 2024.

“If I had a dollar for every time a judge or a prosecutor said to me, ‘Dave, find me a place to send this person to convince me that they’re not coming back,’ I could retire,” said chief public defender David Crowley.

“Holistic public defense is state-of-the-art and takes into account that we are not just there to deal with the immediate problem, but perhaps to point people in the right direction to prevent them from retraining in the system.”

PCCD is making $7 million available for the program this year, but Hull said the application process was “very competitive.” She noted that the county has an existing JAG grant that supports other elements of the strategic plan, “so that’s good.”

Commissioner Michael Pipe said he thinks the initiative will be “one of the best candidates” for a grant.

“I hope that would really set you apart from your peers,” Pipe told Crowley. “There are many public defenders across the state that I think really need it.”

Pipe added that he hopes the program will be implemented and will be successful enough that other public defenders in Pennsylvania will emulate it.

“It really solves not only the legal aspects, but also the trauma, the mental health, the treatment aspects,” he said. “We have to do both. Your office should focus on the legal in terms of your lawyers and support people, but recognize that there are additional things we can do to heal these people and help them in the future.

Commissioner Mark Higgins said the initiative will continue county recidivism efforts that date back to 2014 and helped reduce the number of inmates at the correctional facility from about 260 to about 130 during that time.

“It’s a good idea. When people are involved in the criminal justice system, as long as they are not violent, we would prefer that they not be sentenced if there is a way to avoid that, and we certainly don’t want them to come back and go back and forth through the system,” Higgins said. “If somebody is going to be involved in the criminal justice system, obviously our preference is that they be involved once and never to see him again.”

Commissioner Steve Dershem said he appreciates Hull and Crowley’s efforts to help people get the help they need.

“I appreciate the two of you working on this because I think it makes Center County a much better place and it gives us the opportunity to not only make sure people who don’t need ‘being in the system are not but at the same time helping those who are caught up in the system and have every opportunity to be productive,’ Dershem said.

Later in the meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved the acceptance of another PCCD grant that will fund a social worker within the State College Police Department.

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