At least 40 jails in Indiana are over capacity, and a building boom is on the horizon. Dozens of counties are studying, actively pursuing or developing efforts to add beds or are in the middle of construction. And taxpayers are on the hook for it all.
“It’s a big pain in the butt for us what these lawmakers did, making us hold these offenders,” Huntington County Sheriff Terry Stoffel said. “Indiana is so great at saying ‘we are so flush with money’ and just passed it on to us.”
It all started with a state effort to revamp the criminal code and help curb the rising prison population. Part of the plan was that the lowest-level felons – Level 6 – would no longer be sent to the Indiana Department of Correction. Instead, they would stay in local jails with hopes that many would do home detention or work release.
The state pays $35 a day to jails for each inmate, which covers food and staffing but isn’t enough to add beds.
As a result, Indiana jails are busting at the seams – with 47 percent of all jail inmates being Level 6 felons, according to recent state survey. There are other contributing factors, but there is no denying the code changes are having the largest impact.
In Huntington, for instance, the jail has 98 beds but 156 inmates. Of those, 57 are Level 6 felons.
Allen County has a jail capacity of 740 and is usually 40 to 50 inmates over, although sometimes it creeps up to 100.
Stoffel is in talks with Huntington County and judicial system officials about adding on to the jail.
“You still have to have humane conditions for people to live in or we become as bad as some of the people we have,” he said.
Another factor at play is the number of inmates in jail awaiting charges, trial or sentencing. Sheriffs around the state say some Hoosiers are purposely not bailing out family members because they are getting mental health and substance abuse treatment while in jail.
“They are looking for help,” said David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties. “Jails weren’t designed to provide mental health and addiction services, but that is the expectation now.”
County after county has gone to the Indiana legislature for special permission to raise taxes to build jails. Earlier this year, lawmakers tried to come up with new options statewide in House Bill 1263.
The legislation became law and has two major provisions:
• It allows counties to take up to 0.2 percent of the local income tax rate off the top to put toward correctional and rehabilitation facilities in the county. The overall income tax cap remains the same.
• It requires counties that are building or renovating a jail to conduct a feasibility study of possible alternatives and allows counties to work together on regional jails or rehab centers.
Regional jails are used in Ohio and a few other states but don’t exist in Indiana.
“We have 92 counties. Do we need 92 separate jails?” asked Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis.
He sponsored the bill in the Senate and said counties use mutual aid agreements to cooperate all the time. He thinks regional jails should at least be considered, though he acknowledged the idea faces opposition.
Sandlin said one county was considering putting up a pole barn for extra offenders. But he noted the state has minimum jail standards and said counties don’t want to face litigation.
“Sometimes we have to get out of the mode of ‘this is how we have done it,’” he said.
Allen County Commissioner Therese Brown said from an executive perspective, the regional approach makes sense, because counties would share the cost. But sheriffs are concerned about jurisdiction questions and about meeting their constitutional duties.
Steuben County Sheriff Tim Troyer said the Indiana Sheriffs Association has discussed the regional jail concept at length and found there are too many hurdles. One is creating an oversight structure and deciding who will make decisions in a regional jail. But the biggest is the challenge of transporting inmates to and from court appearances if they are housed out of county.
Sandlin said this is already occurring on a less formal basis because counties are paying other counties to hold inmates when their jails are out of room. Marion County, for instance, has inmates in 12 different counties.
He acknowledged the regional jail concept likely wouldn’t make sense for a major urban center but said smaller rural counties could band together.
Troyer said regional mental health and treatment centers would have more value than regional jails. Mental health problems are behind many smaller crimes, and treatment can help people make permanent changes.
Bottorff said the key to making it work is ensuring that those who go to such centers are Medicaid-eligible. This would mean state and federal funding would cover much of the costs.
“It would be a game-changer,” he said.
But those who are incarcerated aren’t eligible for Medicaid. Treatment could be a requirement of sentencing, though, instead of incarceration.
Brown said Allen County officials are discussing a long-term solution but are trying to ensure that it’s based on data. An expanded work release center is expected to open next summer. That should free up some beds in the jail and provide a short-term solution.
Allen County could finish a floor in one of its towers at a cost of about $1 million but it wouldn’t make much of a dent, Allen County Chief Deputy Charlie Edwards said.
“Taking the position of automatically building a new jail or adding on isn’t always the appropriate tact,” Brown said. “We are trying to hone in on the data right now … before we jump to the next step.”