Lawmaker wants to solve jail overcrowding problem by offering incentives to consolidate jails

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - During the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, Senator Jack Sandlin was successful in passing legislation encouraging Indiana sheriffs to consider consolidating individual county jails into regional facilities, serving multiple counties and saving taxpayers the expense of duplicating services.

Sandlin’s best intentions to save the voters money have apparently fallen on deaf ears.

“We had quite a bit of pushback from sheriffs that I talked to,” said the Indianapolis republican. “Whether it's an infringement on their constitutional responsibility to house the prisoners, run the jail. To me, it's no different than a memorandum of understanding that any governmental agency can enter into with any other governmental agency but the bottom line is we have to look out for the interest of the taxpayers and what they’re paying.”

Sandlin said in the upcoming legislative session, he may have to sweeten the pot financially to convince sheriffs to surrender some autonomy in order to curb Indiana’s potential jail construction boom.

“Some of the counties haven’t taken it seriously, they have gone through the process of looking at it, but at the same time, they’ve sent signals to their surrounding partners that they’re not really interested in coming up with a regional facility,” Sandlin said.

Marion County is leading the way in jail construction with a planned $572 million community justice center which will include a jail, sheriffs office, courthouse and assessment center.

Hamilton County recently broke ground on a $13.5 million jail expansion while Hancock County, rebuffed by its voters in a new jail referendum, might instead spend $5 million to house inmates in modified trailers in the sheriffs office parking lot.

“It's a temporary emergency relief for our current situation and until we can figure out a way to solve the problem permanently I'm housing inmates in other facilities at a cost,” said Chief Deputy Brad Burkhardt. “A lot of this problem stemmed from some legislative changes in the past few years with the level 6 inmates being housed in the county jails.”

“I'm here on a level 6 for methamphetamine. I've been here since August 8,” said Bryan Joshlin. I think there needs to be a solution in the judicial system as far as low offenders they need to start OR-ing out.”

“OR” is shorthand for own recognizance bond when a judge permits an offender to go home pending trial based on their personal commitment to return to court when so ordered.

The Indiana Supreme Court launched a bail reform pilot program in nearly a dozen counties to determine if alternatives to pre-trial incarceration can reduce jail populations without a rise in crime, recidivism or the issuance of failure-to-appear warrants.

During the last couple years, Indiana county jail counts went over the top with the passage of House Bill 1006, which provided for the incarceration of state inmates serving time for low level offenses in the county where they were sentenced.

Counties are reimbursed $35 per day for housing such an inmate, however, if local beds are not available, such offenders can be sent more than one hundred miles away to another jail with open space at costs of up to $45 a day or more, representing a net loss to the home county.

“I think we need to look at what they’re getting in compensation so that its equitable,” said Sandlin. “I’m not sure that current rate meets that requirement so I think we will be looking at that in the next legislative session.”

Sandlin also said the legislature also needs to address the issue of incarcerating offenders with mental health or substance abuse struggles at the community service level as opposed to in expensive county jail.

“40% of the population of the Marion County Jail has mental and emotional issues,” said Sandlin. “It's outrageous that we’re holding people with mental or emotional issues in a jail or a correctional facility. We need to be doing a better job and I’m going to be looking at some alternatives in the upcoming session to see if we can come up with a better way of addressing those with mental and emotional issues.”

Sandlin noted federal funding for opioid addiction treatment would be best spent helping sheriffs who are ill-equipped to provide for substance abusers behind bars.

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