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To fix jail overcrowding, Indiana lawmakers look to send more inmates back to prison

The change would reverse part of Indiana’s landmark criminal justice reform bills from the mid-2010s

Vanderburgh County Jail

Inmates in the women’s block spend a few minutes getting sunlight and a view of the sky Wednesday, July 28, 2021, at the Vanderburgh County Jail in Evansville, Ind.

Indianapolis Star

By Tim Evans and Ryan Martin
The Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — In order to move forward with long-stated goals of addressing drug addiction and mental illness inside Indiana’s county jails, state lawmakers are looking backward.

House Bill 1004 would allow judges to resume sentencing people convicted of low-level felonies into state prisons instead of primarily packing them into local jails. The change would reverse part of Indiana’s landmark criminal justice reform bills from the mid-2010s, when lawmakers sought a less-punitive approach.

The bill passed out of a House committee unanimously Wednesday with broad support from prosecutors, county office-holders, judges, the Indiana Department of Correction, sheriffs and police unions, and state representatives from both political parties, including Democratic members representing the state’s urban areas of Lake, Marion and Monroe counties.

The legislation would address, at least partially, key issues identified in IndyStar’s yearslong investigation, “Death Sentence,” which found most of the state’s 92 jails are routinely overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with a huge influx of people with addiction and other mental health issues. Indiana’s jail population has exploded by 60% since 2010, five times the state’s growth rate.

The results are often dangerous and sometimes deadly. More than 300 people have died since 2010 in Indiana’s county jails, the investigation found, amounting to a death on average every two weeks. The vast majority of those deaths — 89% — occurred in counties that the state flagged for repeatedly falling short of crowding or staffing standards set by the IDOC.

Sheriffs told IndyStar as many as 80 percent of the people in their jails had drug or mental health issues, and many could be better served in other treatment settings. In 2021, nearly 16,000 people convicted of a Level 6 felony — the lowest level in Indiana’s criminal code, often tied to drug and other non-violent crimes — were placed in county jails across the state.

“Many of our rural jails just don’t have adequate treatment facilities for these folks. This is just an option,” said State Rep. Randy Frye, a Greensburg Republican, during Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Frye, who carried the bill, said the IDOC has drug addiction and mental health treatment available every day, while many counties — particularly in rural stretches of the state — do not. And, IndyStar found, the challenges are common to the state’s urban areas, too.

Frye said he believed prosecutors would still work to keep people in local jails when appropriate. And he emphasized such decisions would be at the judge’s discretion, rather than a blanket mandate from the state.

Supporters see the move as necessary to reduce chronic jail crowding while giving people convicted of the lowest level of felonies a shot at receiving treatment, even if it is in a state prison.

Johnson Superior Judge Peter Nugent, who spoke in favor of the bill, estimated two-thirds of the cases in his problem-solving court involve methamphetamine. Those convicted of higher-level felonies have already been getting treatment in prison, which he said “is really helping a lot of people.”

“But we’re stuck on these Level 6s because we’ve got a lot of Level 6 possessions and they’re users, they’re addicts. And it’s difficult,” he said. “There’s just some folks that need to go to DOC.”

But the bill drew criticism from Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, who said it was “disheartening.”

“Indiana has a very large jail overcrowding problem. We all know that,” Corley said. “I know counties are hurting. I know facilities are hurting. But this feels a bit premature.”

She also noted that a review of Indiana’s sentencing patterns shows judges are still including incarceration in most of their sentences, which Corley described as a demonstration of a lack of buy-in to community-based justice reform.

Even some supporters said the bill represents a failure by the state’s fiscal leaders and a surrender of the Legislature’s long-term plans to reform the criminal justice system.

“The important thing is that people get the programming and the treatment that they need. And what I’m basically hearing is, in some cases, that’s only going to happen in DOC,” said State Rep. Matt Pierce, a Democrat from Bloomington.

Pierce said he supports the bill, even though he believes state leaders failed sheriffs and county officials after thousands of low-level felons were diverted from prison to jails. He called the new legislation “a recognition of failure, and really almost a surrender” on the part of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers’ prior reform efforts were designed to encourage a change in behavior within each county’s local criminal justice system. If a jail consistently ran out of space to hold more people, for example, then maybe that county’s prosecutors and judges would not necessarily pursue the toughest sentences for people arrested on drug and property crimes, which are often driven by addiction and mental health issues.

“The idea was not to turn a jail into a mental health facility, but to have programs outside the jail in the local community, where offenders could go to solve the underlying problems that are causing them to get ensnared in the criminal justice system,” Pierce said. “And the idea was, we would find savings from DOC and reallocate those down to the local level. And it just hasn’t happened.”

Because that network never fully materialized, thousands of Hoosiers languished in jails without help. The lack of services has perpetuated and exacerbated a revolving-door system in which many untreated Hoosiers cycle back through jails time and again rather than receiving the kinds of help proven to help turn lives around.

A mishmash of problem-solving courts, community corrections programs and treatment services have tried to bridge Indiana’s incarceration-heavy past into its potential reform-minded future, but even then the options have varied dramatically depending on the county. Only about a third of Indiana’s sheriffs, for example, take advantage of state grant funding to provide medicine like Suboxone to treat opioid dependence.

If HB 1004 eventually becomes law, the major question is: Will each county’s criminal justice leaders still try their hands at providing more treatment options and invest in other alternatives to a prison cell? Or will they choose the path of least resistance by simply shipping convicted felons back off to a state prison?

Wayne Superior Judge Darrin M. Dolehanty, board president of the Indiana Judges Association, called the proposed change “intelligent” and an incremental way to keep moving toward the goals of the Legislature’s past attempts at reform.

But sending more people convicted of Level 6 felonies to prison to get drug treatment and mental health services is not a cure-all. They may be waiting several weeks and months inside jails, still without adequate treatment, until their court dates. By the time of a conviction, many have a year or less to serve — and then whatever time they spent in jail is shaved off that sentence.

And while they may be able to access some mental health services immediately, there is a waiting list for IDOC’s most-touted treatment programs.

That means some people will likely complete their sentence before a treatment slot becomes available for them.

“We certainly should not be using DOC for mental health or substance abuse. And I think it was clear from some of the testimony of the judges that many of the people who come through don’t necessarily need to be incarcerated,” said State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, a Democrat from Gary. “I just hope that we do look for a better solution for people to be able to get the treatment that they need, even if it’s not necessarily while they’re confined, but in other ways and start putting the resources into doing that.”

HB 1004 passed out of the committee unanimously, 12-0. It now awaits further action in the House.


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