State should be on the hook for jail overcrowding


(Marion) Chronicle-Tribune

Incarceration in Indiana is a problem, a big problem.

The consequences are dire. The taxpayers are on the hook for lawsuits if our leaders neglect their responsibilities, and we will foot the bill for blown-out-of-proportion projects. That’s why it’s important that we understand this problem and lobby our leaders to take action in some way to stem the tide.

A majority of jails in rural Indiana are at or over capacity. According to a Department of Correction report published in 2017, 59 of the state’s 92 counties including Jackson are at the overcrowded threshold.

All the while, our local leaders are also trying to navigate the state’s role in this whole debacle.

Although overcrowding was an issue before 2015, the General Assembly passed a bill that year that made this situation even more complicated.

Level 6 felons used to be housed in state prisons, but to close down one of our prisons — and probably save money — our legislators passed legislation that forced counties to take these Level 6 felony offenders.

Our county jails weren’t built to house felons. They were built to house people awaiting trials or serving sentences for misdemeanor charges.

Level 6 felonies carry anywhere between half a year to two and a half years in jail. The harshest misdemeanor carries up to one year in jail.

On top of that, many of Level 6 felons need substance abuse treatment, something they could have gotten in prison but have a hard time receiving locally.

Now, our local communities are forced to either arrest and prosecute less people or fork up the cash to fund bigger jails.

Right now, each community is taking a different approach.

Jackson County is building a $5.5 million work release center.

Huntington County officials created an income tax to generate $1.5 million annually to help fund an expansion project. They have plans to build a project in the ballpark of $15 million, which will more than double the capacity of the jail.

Wabash County failed to respond to complaints and are now facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Grant County officials are working on renovating the D-Home to house juveniles and female inmates, but these projects likely won’t fix the county’s larger jail overcrowding issues.

Huntington County’s approach is a bit too haphazard to be fiscally responsible, but at least they are doing something proactive instead of being reactive.

Wabash County’s situation looks grim. Their reactive approach could be costly, both fiscally and socially.

Grant County’s plan seems to be somewhere in the middle, but the following argument holds true for all public officials.

Overcrowding can be fixed in multiple ways. You can take a community corrections approach, or you can take the construction approach.

Taking a “no new taxes” approach might help officials win reelection, but it’s not a long-term solution. It could also backfire terribly with allegations of negligence to follow.

While nobody likes new taxes, people are also reasonable. When the public is faced with a choice — either let criminals run free or pay a few extra dollars to fund a jail expansion — they will probably choose the latter.

It is important, however that our leaders consider alternative sentencing as a way to stem jail overcrowding. Prosecutors could push for convicting people of non-violent crimes but advocate for no jail time. Judges could opt to use probation for reasonable cases.

All of these options cost money, but it’s better to talk about ways to handle an expense before it becomes a mandate, or worse.

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