Jail overcrowding solutions are costly options

Hancock County Jail is overcrowded. Building more cells could be very expensive, with the money to accomplish that coming from a bond issue payable from property taxes or income taxes. Either way you will pay for it.

If it’s property taxes, the amount needed will be large enough to trigger a voter referendum, which means you get to decide what to do. That would be on the ballot in 2018, so this is an issue we all should follow closely.

As a country, we have chosen to imprison more of our population than almost any other country. With less than 5 percent of the world population, our jails hold 22 percent of those imprisoned. On a per capita basis we imprison more than China, Russia, Cuba and all other countries except Seychelles, although North Korea does not share its statistics.

Congress is well aware of this and is making a bipartisan attempt to re-examine federal criminal laws to reduce some sentences.

In Indiana, the General Assembly decided to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons by sending more to the counties. This has saved legislators from coming up with the money to build an additional state prison, but it leaves the counties to pay the cost of building the jails.

Our current jail was opened in 1988. As it was being designed, county officials struggled to determine the number of inmates the jail should hold. Build it too large, and taxpayers would be footing an unnecessarily large bill. Build it too small, and taxpayers would be building again soon.

A choice was made for a capacity of 157. Now, 28 years later, the number of inmates held there is often around 180 to 190, and has reached 220. About 90 of those are not serving sentences but sit there awaiting trial because they are unable to post bond.

After the jail was constructed, the Community Corrections facility was built both to handle the overflow from the jail and to help ease inmates back into civilian life; inmates there must have a job. The original 100 beds were recently expanded to 116, and they are usually full.

In addition, there is home detention, in which ankle bracelets are worn so that a supervisor knows where a person is at all times. That program currently has 85 and could handle more if additional inmates were eligible.

Anticipating the overcapacity problem, the county commissioners employed an architectural firm. Its report is in the Auditor’s Office. The primary recommendation is to construct a new jail complex with a capacity of 212 maximum-security beds and 100 more community corrections beds. It would be located between the current jail and community corrections buildings.

The existing jail would be mothballed until the new jail reaches capacity and then put back into use.

If you have added the numbers above, you will see that the occupancy number of inmates in the current jail is already nearing the 212 capacity of the proposed new jail, so the architect is relying on the new 100 community corrections beds to provide relief. However, the architect estimates the relief would be short-lived, and in 5-10 years the current jail would need to be reopened. Staffing both jail facilities could lead to the doubling of the number of jailers, which is 24 at the current jail.

The architects also project the need of additional space for the prosecuting attorney and the probation department, as well as additional parking spaces to replace those lost by construction of the new facilities. The cost would be from $25,000,000 to $30,000,000, depending on what is built, so please follow this closely.

Ray Richardson is a former Indiana state lawmaker who currently serves as Hancock County attorney. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.