Jail issue about more than bricks, mortar

The debate is about whether to build a new jail in Hancock County and how to finance it. Based on overcrowding, the age and inadequacy of the current jail and safety, the need has been established. If you leave it that, it might be easy to endorse a new jail at the estimated $55 million.

This goal is worthy, but does it require a $55 million price tag?

Jail officials estimate about 80 percent of those behind bars locally committed crimes because of drug addiction. The Hancock County Probation Department utilizes the Heroin Protocol, which allows addicts to live in a halfway house after detoxing rather than serve time in jail. This option, if funded better and provided more staff, could be cost-effective and reduce the need for as many jail beds.

Why scale the facility down?

Seventy percent of those jailed in Indiana have not been convicted; they simply can’t make bail, according to prisonpolicyinitiative.org. For minor offenses, why not waive bail for those unconvicted inmates who can’t afford it and let these people go back to work? In this way, they and their families’ lives aren’t totally disrupted. And there will be less need for jail beds.

The state has created the incarceration overload, and the state should help fix it by relaxing harsh sentencing requirements regarding drug offenses and non-violent crimes.

I hope our county leaders are lobbying for that.

It is also a matter of time before marijuana is legalized in all 50 states. Incarceration levels will dramatically decrease when this happens. Several states already have legalized it.

And what about cost-sharing?

A 40-bed facility for the mentally ill has been suggested to the Indiana Department of Corrections to cover all of Southwest Indiana, with cost-sharing by the affected counties. Could Hancock County cost-share with other counties regarding our jail, considering almost a third of our current inmates (as of this writing) have an Indianapolis address?

Besides cost-sharing and lighter sentencing, another factor to consider is education.

Third-grade reading levels are indicators of future jail populations. Couldn’t some of the proposed $55 million go toward more tutoring for this grade, resulting in better reading and comprehension, better chances at job success and less incarceration in the future?

If unconvicted inmates are not employed, is it because they are unemployable? If so, wouldn’t some of the proposed $55 million go a long way for further education and job readiness training, before people get into trouble? And especially after they get into trouble?

It has been shown the recidivism rate for released criminals goes down as their education goes up. GED certification is easy to come by in this county, if one has transportation. Public transportation isn’t an option in Hancock County. Could recidivism be reduced by simply providing rides to classes?

The title of an Inside Business article from July 2016 says it best: “U.S. spending on prisons and jails grew three times as fast as spending on education in the last three decades.”

Let’s think long-term and address the issue at its core, which includes more than bricks and mortar.

Visit hancockcoingov.org, Board of Commissioners, Meeting Minutes, Oct. 31, 2017, to see the commissioners’ viewpoints and public comments on this issue.

Donna Steele is an Alabama native who now lives in Greenfield. She can be reached at dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.