INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Monday afternoon Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett announced the results of an exhaustive seven-month long study into reforms of the Marion County criminal justice system and an outline for construction of a new jail.
The report calls for sweeping changes, from the first phone call for help the county’s 911 dispatch operators receive and the initial contact by police through the booking, referral and bond process to adjudication and incarceration.
Each year Marion County taxpayers spend $440 million on criminal justice in an effort to protect their homes and families, punish the worst offenders and help those incarcerated with mental health and drug addiction issues.
In 2014 former Mayor Greg Ballard unsuccessfully proposed a nearly $500 million criminal justice and jail complex to be constructed on the site of the former General Motors stamping plant on Oliver Street near the White River west of downtown.
The Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Task Force report does not include a cost estimate for a proposed criminal justice and jail campus though it estimates savings of $35 million due to consolidation of office space and operations if its recommendations are accepted.
In April of this year Marion County Sheriff John Layton declared a jail crowding crisis at his 50-year-old downtown facility as the offender population continued to hover near or above capacity throughout the summer.
Two weeks later, in his inaugural State of the City address, Hogsett called for a task force report, relying on best practices, to reform the county’s antiquated and inefficient system.
Built on the research of a team of IU and IUPUI professors from the Schools of Public and Environmental Affairs and the work of dozens of criminal justice and administration stakeholders, the resulting 124-page report calls for a total rethink of the arrest, criminal adjudication, referral and incarceration process in Indianapolis.
“I think we’re starting to realize that those normal operations, the way we used to process people in the past, just isn’t working anymore, so we have to find new ways, we have to experiment with new ways to divert folks out of the system,” said Dr. Eric Grommon of IUPUI-SPEA. “I feel we have a good pool of individuals who are already starting to think about, ‘How do we break down these silos and work together and share data and try to figure out how we answer some of our big city problems.’”
Each year approximately 40,000 people pass through the criminal justice system in Marion County.
FOX59 News investigations over the last three years have revealed multiple cases of mistaken identity arrests, inadvertent or delayed offender releases, jail deaths and suicides, overcrowding, lawsuits and staffing shortages.
The report highlights the impact so-called “super utilizers” have on clogging the system repeatedly with behavior and police encounters that are not necessarily criminal.
“Police want to take people someplace else besides jail,” said Dr. Brad Ray who specializes in the study of mental illness and addiction issues at IUPUI-SPEA. “They just need to know where that is and they can drop those individuals off there and those individuals will get the services.”
Sheriff Layton estimates the treatment of mentally ill offenders costs the jail $7.7 million per year in medication, hospitalization and security expenses.
Layton says a majority of his inmates have drug or alcohol problems and a significant percentage suffer from mental illness.
“Some of the numbers there have individuals there with substance abuse disorders at 80%, mental illness 30%, those are pretty high numbers,” said Ray.
The report calls for instructing all IMPD officers and Marion County’s 911 dispatchers in Crisis Intervention Training to recognize, from the first phone call and officer visit, whether the person they are responding to is involved in a mental illness or addiction event. Then a Mobile Crisis Unit, with a highly trained police officer, a social worker and an EMS crew member, could respond and determine if a jail alternative with an immediate health care solution and the option for a more long term intervention plan is more appropriate than arrest and incarceration.
Such alternatives, such as the soon-to-be-operational Reuben Engagement Center, would assess the detainees’ needs and make a referral that, in theory, could result not only in a life-changing intervention but free up expensive high security jail beds for truly violent offenders.
“It is almost two to three times more expensive to have people locked up,” said Grommon, “so you may have one interruption and that might work for one individual, it might work for a few individuals, but when we think about relapse to break that habit, to have an interruption, to have a change, you might have multiple times you’re going to fail before it finally kicks in.”
The report lists 19 recommendations to improve the system.
Those recommendations include reforming and streamlining the identification process during arrest, utilizing technology to take fingerprints, issue traffic tickets and remind offenders of court dates, appointing a data manager to coordinate the various computer systems police, prosecutors, courts, the jail, public defenders and community corrections use to communicate, engaging in pre-trial services to conduct mental health and substance abuse screenings and identify offenders eligible for diversion and reduced charges based on treatment success.
Bond reform, property room transfer to the forensic services agency, permanent assignment of grand jury and search warrant responsibilities to courts of origin and the simplification of report filing are also among the recommendations.
The task force report calls for construction of a new jail, sheriff’s office and criminal justice campus.
Such a site would contain a jail with a 3000 bed capacity, enough space for Marion County’s 36 courtrooms, a sheriff’s office, medical facilities and possibly offices for the county’s prosecutor and public defender.
The current Arrestee Processing Center would be repurposed, Jail II on East Washington Street would house community corrections offenders and vacated space inside the City County Building would house other city agencies that would relocate from leased office space throughout the county.
The potential sites would be similar to the options considered by the Ballard administration two years ago.
Current downtown locations sit on expensive and potentially valuable properties that offer no space for expansion.
The abandoned GM site meets the criteria for affordability and future expansion potential, as would land at the former Indianapolis International Airport terminal or a potential eastside location.
The report calls for identification of such a site in early 2017 to be followed by city county council debate on financing.
The Ballard plan, which called for private construction of the campus and a $1.8 billion lease-to-own 30-year agreement, focused on construction and financing with virtually no reform of the criminal justice system that currently places a record number of Marion County offenders behind bars.
“There’s this movement away from incarceration,” said Grommon. “There’s a national momentum away from this idea…that we need to revert away from mass incarceration.
“That seems to be the model, if we build something we do fill it. That just seems to be the pattern that we see all across the United States.”
By leaning on a best practices library and referrals by the academic community, Marion County has an opportunity to develop a criminal justice system to benefit taxpayers, client/offenders and stakeholders alike and garner national support and attention.
“Maybe it's not about building a bigger jail as much as it is getting new types of employees in there,” said Ray. “New resources in there getting individuals when they leave into Medicare, into Medicaid, getting them drivers licenses, getting them hooked into services that they might need, helping to understand what are the underlying causes of criminal behavior and helping to address those and helping individuals address those and that would reduce the need for such a large jail if we can reduce some of that recidivism rate here.”