Lawmakers discuss county crunch


GREENFIELD — Hancock County isn’t alone in dealing with an overcrowded county jail, a study by the state sheriff’s association shows.

Across the state, nearly half of all county jails — 44 out of 91 — are housing more inmates than their capacity. At least four have more than twice as many as they should, according to a study presented to lawmakers last month.

This week in Hancock County, the jail housed 181 inmates, 24 more than its 157 inmate capacity. Another 36 were being held at a jail in LaGrange County to relieve the overflow, said chief deputy Maj. Brad Burkhart.

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Overcrowding at the facility is an issue local officials have been discussing for years, with the debate becoming more contentious in recent months as they consider building a new jail and how a potentially $35 million project would be funded.

Now, as the number of inmates being held at county jails across the state creeps up, state lawmakers are being asked to take up the issue.

A summer study committee of lawmakers has spent the past few months discussing how to alleviate cramped facilities and reviewing the factors that contribute to the high number of inmates in jails across the state.

One factor they’ve discussed is state legislators’ decision in 2014 to require judges to sentence the state’s low-level offenders to time in county jails rather than state prisons. That decision has increased the number of inmates in county jails, including in Hancock County, while reducing the number in state prisons.

But even if that legislation wasn’t in place, one-third of jails in the county would still be overcrowded, according to the sheriff’s association study.

For example, in Hancock County, at the time of the study, 43 inmates — or 27 percent — were serving sentences on Level 6 felony convictions, the lowest level of felony.

Another 110 inmates — or 70 percent of those in the jail at the time — were waiting for their case to go through the court system.

State lawmakers are considering different options that would alleviate the crowding in county jails, but changing the legislation dictating where offenders convicted of low level felonies serve their sentences isn’t on that list, said Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis. Young is chairman of the corrections and criminal law committee.

Among the reasons the legislation was changed was to ensure non-violent offenders have access to programs aimed at helping them recover from substance abuse or mental health issues, to help them become productive citizens, he said. Those programs aren’t provided in state prisons, Young said.

“Prison is for people we are afraid of, not mad at,” Young said.

A bigger issue lawmakers are considering is how to get people out of jail on bond while they are waiting for their criminal case to be resolved, a waiting period that accounts for more than half of the inmates in county jails, he said.

What is preventing those inmates from being released is a key question, he said.

“Is it because they can’t afford bail, or are there other reasons why they shouldn’t be released? Are they a flight risk, potentially harmful, already been out and committed a crime and failed pre-trial release?” Young said.

“We have a great number in there that maybe shouldn’t be in there.”

The issue is one the Indiana Supreme Court has already decided needs to be changed. Last year, the court issued a ruling that will reform Indiana’s bail system. By 2020, courts will be required to consider releasing low-level, non-violent offenders without bail. The ruling is already in effect in a handful of pilot counties.

State Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, echoed Young’s sentiments, saying many of the folks sitting in jails in the counties he represents are there because they can’t afford bail.

Though he’s not serving on the summer study committee considering the issue, he’s prepared to discuss the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January, Crider said.

He hopes lawmakers consider mental health and the opiate crisis when looking for a solution. Too many inmates suffering from mental health problems are being jailed, he said.

While he’s not sure of the best solution, building a new jail for every facility that is overcrowded isn’t the right answer, Crider said.

“We really need to have a serious discussion around this,” he said. “We’ve essentially created this problem all over the state.”