Sheriffs seek help from lawmakers for jail overcrowding

HAMILTON COUNTY, Ind.-- Nine years ago, Hamilton County built an enlarged Juvenile Services Center at the county jail in Noblesville.

The center has 76 beds, but judges aren’t locking up teenagers like they used to and Hamilton County has only 15 juvenile offenders in custody right now. Sheriff Mark Bowen has decided to move those kids around and free up bed space in his overcrowded jail for some adults who are in even bigger trouble.

“We’ve identified that as an opportunity to move our female prisoners out of the adult jail into that facility to free up some space in the adult jail and we’re repurposing our old juvenile detention facility and putting our juveniles back in there,” said Bowen who currently has 400 inmates vying for space in a jail built to house 296 adult offenders.  “We’ll just be able to get some people off the floor. We have about 76 female prisoners and we’ll have about 120 beds available for them in what was the juvenile detention facility so moving those 76 females out of the jail will free up 76 beds in the adult facility and will leave us over the capacity but it will get some people off the floor.”

Bowen’s comments came after he witnessed a three-hour long informational hearing of an Indiana Senate committee dedicated to sorting out the state’s prison and jail crowding dilemma.

In 2015, House Bill 1006 took effect, moving low-level felons serving state time back to their home counties to finish their sentences.

The inmate shift allowed the Department of Correction to free up more than 4,300 beds, reduce its overall prisoner population to about 25,000 and close a prison in Henryville.

Good news for DOC, but bad news for Indiana sheriffs.

“Off the top of my head I know that there are about sixteen counties that are farming inmates out because their population is high,” said Steve Luce, Executive Director the Indiana Sheriffs Association who found that almost half of the state’s sheriffs report their jails are overcrowded and put some of the blame on HB 1006.

Marion County Sheriff John Layton attended the hearing as senators learned his jail system is more than one hundred inmates above its capacity of 2,507 offenders.

“The Free Beds shows that we are at negative 46 in Jail One,” Col. Louis Dezelan told the panel, “and negative 59 in Jail Two with a total negative of 105.”

Dezelan then added another 150 state inmates sent to serve their terms in Marion County who have been shipped to nine other county jails in Indiana at a cost ranging from $35-40 a day, most of it paid by the state, because there is no bed space in Indianapolis.

Marion County is in the midst of planning to build a new criminal justice center campus and jail on the eastside of Indianapolis.

The sheriff responsible for the safety of Vanderburgh County and Evansville told the committee his county leaders have rejected pleas for a larger jail.

“I have guards working consecutive 16-hour shifts in my jail,” said Sheriff Dave Wedding. “That’s unacceptable. They’re gonna get hurt, they get complacent, they get angry, it may cause them to assault a prisoner because they’re mad because they haven’t slept.”

Wedding said he has been thwarted in attempts to seek DOC funding for added space and programs to supervise offenders released from custody.

“It seems like we saved two facilities,” said Sen. Jim Merritt, an Indianapolis republican, as he assessed the reduction in the DOC inmate population. “Why haven’t we used those savings more for community corrections programs at least in those 16 counties to get their population down?”

Community corrections programs supervise offenders at home, often before their trials, as most inmates sitting in county jails haven’t been convicted of a crime and are still waiting for their case to be heard.

“About ten or eleven percent of the individuals in our custody are serving sentences,” said Dezelan. “The remainder 89-90 percent are awaiting trial.”

Larry Landis of the Indiana Public Defender Council said ten counties in Indiana are participating in a pilot program to reform bail and make it easier for offenders to raise the money to be released from jail

“Marion County has not chosen to be one of them,” said Landis. “Marion County’s problem is somewhat self-inflicted, in my opinion. They are the only urban county that uses primarily a surety bond system, a bail schedule.

“Cash deposit makes it easier for offenders to borrow money from relatives and friends post it and get some of it back when a person appears. If a person goes to a surety bail bondsman they get nothing back.”

While 187 inmates in the Marion County Jail are facing either murder or the most severe felony charges, more than two thousand remain behind bars in the overcrowded aging facility.

“These folks that are in jail are in jail because folks are afraid of them,” said Kevin Murray, Sheriff Layton’s legal counsel.

Some senators suggested the overcrowding issue be referred to a summer study committee.

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