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HAMILTON COUNTY, Ind. —  A non-profit research group looking into jail incarceration rates found that Indiana is among the worst states in the country when it comes to jail overcrowding.

The Vera Institute works with justice systems, stakeholders, communities and policy makers to “reimagine and improve justice systems.” Jack Norton and Jasmine Heiss took it upon themselves within the last couple of years to visit small and rural counties across the country. They were investigating incarceration trends and who was behind bars.

“The jail incarceration rate rose 32 percent in the last two years,” Norton said. “That 32-percent increase in Indiana is the first time that has happened in the state since 2003.”

The Vera Institute found that no other state had seen their jail population grow as rapidly as Indiana’s in the last 15 years.

CBS4 wanted to know why.

“Indiana, we found, sort of engaged in some prison reforms. They wanted to get the prison incarceration rates down,” Heiss explained.

Heiss referenced House Bill 1006, which former Governor Mike Pence signed in 2015. It forced low-level felons to be housed in county jails rather than at state prisons.

“Now in Indiana, you have a situation that counties across the state are facing. Their jails are overcrowded and they’re needing to build bigger jails,” Heiss said.

CBS4 confirmed there are at least nine counties looking to build a new facility including Adams, Delaware, Fountain, Hamilton, Hancock, Johnson, Orange, Vanderburgh and Vigo Counties.

“It was definitely a need,” Hamilton County Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush said. “We had to build this facility.”

Hamilton County recently spent $13 million to build a new jail. It is behind the old facility along Cumberland Road. It will offer up to 666 inmate beds compared to the 416 the jail currently houses.

“We have seen explosive growth so with that growth, we do see an increase in the population of the jail as well,” he explained.

The Vera Institute, though, isn’t sure building or expanding facilities is a good idea.

“If you build it, they will fit it,” Norton said.

Instead, researchers said there are other things Indiana can do to reduce the jail population. Heiss said the state should allow low-level and non-violent offenders go if they haven’t yet had a trial or been sentenced. Heiss also recommended that the state focus more on mental health and drug addiction services rather than locking those people up.

“Seek out solutions that are not strictly carceral,” Heiss said. “I do think it’s a question of investment.”

Researchers pointed to nearby cities and states that have successfully shifted their approach. Chicago, for example, has reportedly seen a 40-percent decline in their jail population in recent years.

They have done several things to contribute to the change:

  • Criminal court judges were ordered to set bail amounts according to what people could afford to pay (as long as they were not deemed a public safety risk)
  • The Cook County State Attorney’s Office announced in 2015 it would no longer prosecute misdemeanor possession of marijuana
  • In 2016, Illinois decriminalized possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana. Therefore, the Chicago Police Dept. has made fewer marijuana and narcotics arrests
  • Chicago expanded a program that helps people receive substance abuse treatment
  • There is active civil engagement when it comes to criminal justice reform. IE: The Chicago Community Bond fund, which pays bond for people that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it and have been impacted by “structural violence”
  • State Attorney Kimberly Foxx was elected to office in 2016. She raised the threshold for felony retail theft from $300 to $1,000 and ended prosecution for driving on a suspended license when a person’s license has been suspended because of unpaid fines or fees. She has also been credited with making records more transparent. That move, alone, reportedly led to several wrongfully convicted people being exonerated
  • Cook County expanded its pre-arrest diversion program
  • Cook County created an automated court reminder program so that fewer people are arrested for missing court appearances

The Vera Institute said states like Michigan have started implementing similar measures.

“Will Indiana move in the direction of a deeply troubled state or will it take cues from Illinois, Michigan, other states in the region that have taken steps to decarceration?” Heiss asked.