The Porter County Jail population is the lowest it’s been in 15 years.

Officials attribute that to a number of things, including the county’s participation in a pilot program for pretrial release; myriad options targeting specific offenders, such as veterans court and drug court; and services offered in the jail to combat substance abuse and thereby reduce recidivism rates.

“There’s a collaborative effort to address not only the individual who comes to the jail, from the services offered in the jail and at the back end, services offered through PACT after release,” said Amesha McDonald, coordinator for electronic monitoring services and lead case manager for Porter County PACT, which offers a wide array of programs, including pretrial programming.

According to statistics provided by the Porter County Sheriff’s Department, the average annual population for the jail has climbed and fallen over the years, with a high of 489 inmates in 2005 to the current average of 335 inmates so far this year. The jail’s three pods can hold a total of 450 inmates.

Sheriff David Reynolds, like McDonald and other officials, credits the collaborative effort between the jail, PACT and the county’s judges, as well as the pilot program for pretrial release, which started around two years ago.

The program, which included 11 counties in the pilot, becomes state law in January and provides an assessment to determine whether pretrial release is appropriate for an alleged offender. The program is called the Indiana Risk Assessment System, or IRAS.

Porter County was selected for the pilot, Reynolds said, because of its progressive approach to jail programming.

That includes chemical dependency and addiction classes for men and women; a more intensive therapeutic community for men; anger management classes; biblical life principles, known as the “God pod,” and Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, as well classes to earn a high school equivalency diploma.

Some of that programming, he said, is court ordered, and some of it is selected voluntarily by the inmates, adding the jail tracks its recidivism rates.

Inmates remain at the jail for three to six months on average.

“If they want to really turn their life around, why not offer them a program?” Reynolds said, adding at graduation ceremonies for some of the programs, he notes to graduates that the programs are more for the safety and security of the community than their benefit.

“I just think it’s part of our job of what we do, not just arrest them,” Reynolds said.

While the recidivism rate across the country is 75 percent to 80 percent, Reynolds said, it’s noticeably lower for offenders in the jail’s programs. It hovers around 52 percent for those who go through the chemical dependency and addiction program; a little more than 20 percent for the “God pod” and about 32 percent for those who go through the therapeutic community.

“Obviously, something is working,” Reynolds said.

Even with the county’s growing population, Reynolds said, bookings into the jail continue to shrink. As of June 3, 2018, 2,836 inmates had been booked into the jail. A year later, that figure was 2,441.

“I would say it’s the programming and services offered,” McDonald said.

When IRAS started here, the average daily population of the jail was well into the 400s in the number of inmates, she said, but that number has dropped as officials have been able to assess whether pretrial release is appropriate for an alleged offender.

“It helps us determine if an individual was released from the jail, whether they will appear for their hearings and commit no new offenses while out on bond,” she said. “We assess everybody except (those arrested for) treason and murder.”

The assessment ranks whether the alleged offender is a low, moderate or high risk, and a judge has to agree to release someone, McDonald said, adding conditions of release, such as electronic monitoring, also are part of the assessment results.

Arrestees, she added, are innocent until proven guilty.

“Part of that matrix is keeping that in mind,” she said.

Other counties don’t always have a collaborative approach or the resources to do what Porter County does, said Steve Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs' Association.

“I think Sheriff Reynolds is right on because of what he’s doing in Porter County. It takes a collaborative effort to look at who’s in your jail and if you can have that approach and the resources, you’re going to have a better result and lower recidivism,” he said.

Not all inmates want to participate in the programming, Luce said, but when they do, that’s when jails can lower recidivism rates and make jails safer.

A data program that would link the state’s jails with information including who is in the jails and recidivism rates is in the works, Luce said, and those figures would be available for legislators and local officials, allowing them to direct resources where needed.

“You will see better reform” when everyone has access to that data, Luce said. “The jail is built for pretrial, meaning short stays.”

Porter Superior Court Judge David Chidester said his inclination is not to pay too much attention to jail population figures because he doesn’t want them influencing his decisions.

Still, he said IRAS, also known as Criminal Rule 26, also decreases the use of cash bonds as the only way an alleged offender can be released from custody. It provides people the options of lower bonds and being released on their own recognizance with pretrial supervision.

“We’re doing our part as part of that pilot project,” he said, adding for cases of driving while suspended, minor consumption of alcohol, and possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, suspects can be released without a cash bond after they’re assessed through IRAS. “If they are not thought to be a danger (to the community) or a flight risk, they are released.”
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