Five years ago, Indiana lawmakers updated the state’s criminal code — a move that now is overcrowding some county jails.
One change in the code sent people convicted of the lowest-level felony crimes to county jails instead of the state prison system.
Avoiding the need to build another state prison was one goal behind the change. Mission accomplished, except that now some counties are facing the prospect of building new jails to hold the additional inmates.
Instead of all Hoosiers paying for a new prison, the burden will be shifted to taxpayers in those counties that have older, smaller jails.
Granted, there was more behind the change than just shoving costs from state government to counties.
The change also came from the notion that nonviolent offenders would have a better chance of being rehabilitated if they stayed in their hometown jails instead of in state penal institutions.
That’s now how it worked, former DeKalb County Sheriff Don Lauer said in his parting interview at the end of 2018. County jails simply don’t have the resources to give prisoners the rehabilitation services they need.
DeKalb County’s jail is among the Indiana jails that are stuffed to the limit. DeKalb County is fortunate to be surrounded by larger jails in LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties, where cooperative sheriffs have been willing to house DeKalb’s overflow prisoners — a number that topped 50 last month.
DeKalb County sends the neighboring sheriffs the $35 per day it receives from the state for housing each convicted felon. There’s a movement to raise that to $55 per day, which would help, but that’s a topic for another day.
An extra $20 per day still wouldn’t solve the overcrowding problem. That’s why state Sen. Eric Koch is backing a bill to send some felony offenders back to the state prison system.
Koch’s Senate Bill 319 proposes that a low-level felon could be sentenced to a state prison instead of a local jail if the offender’s probation is revoked because he or she commits an additional crime.
The jail in Bedford, in Koch’s home county of Lawrence, also is among the jails that are exceeding their population limits. Reports say it has a limit of 180 inmates, but at times has topped the 200 mark.
Estimates say Koch’s bill could cut the Bedford jail population by more than 40 inmates, putting it back within safe limits. That could extend the life of the Lawrence County Jail and avoid costly construction. It could do the same in other counties.
Koch will run into resistance because his plan pushes costs back to the state.
There’s an even cheaper way to reduce jail populations, although nobody’s talking about it in this year’s Legislature.
Jails are full of people who have been arrested and could be released on bail while awaiting trial — except they can’t afford to bond out.
Lawrence County’s sheriff has counted heads and found that 40 percent of his prisoners are there because they can’t post bail.
A trend around the nation is to let suspects remain out of jail while awaiting trial, if they are not considered dangerous to the public. Being released would be based on a suspect’s level of risk instead of ability to pay.
Maybe instead of the state and counties battling over who should house all the prisoners, some of them should not be behind bars at all.
OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Dave Kurtz, Grace Housholder, Michael Marturello and Steve Garbacz. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board.
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