There are fewer inmates in the Fulton County Jail these days and a new approach by court judges may be part of the reason.

As of Friday morning, 55 inmates were held at the Fulton County Jail, which has 76 general population beds. Thirty-two inmates were held elsewhere – most at the Miami County Jail.

The county’s inmate population has decreased nearly 25 percent from the daily average of 115 in 2018. The average inmate population in 2017 was 92, according to a two-year comparison prepared by Fulton County Sheriff Chris Sailors.

Time will tell if the downward trend in the inmate population is due to measures being taken at the court level or simply typical for this time of year.

In an effort to address ongoing jail overcrowding, county officials approved – at this time last year – an interlocal agreement for a guaranteed 30 beds at Miami County Jail for people arrested on local charges. Under the agreement, Fulton County is billed $40 per inmate per day.

That agreement remains in effect, despite the county’s recent downturn in the inmate population.

“Right now, everything is as it was,” Sailors said of the agreement. “I guess I’m waiting to see if these numbers start to spike back up.”

He noted Indiana Jail Standards call for an average occupancy rate of 80 percent, meaning there should be no more than 61 inmates in the jail at a given time. If the county were to sever its contract with Miami County, that occupancy rate would be exceeded due to the 30 returning inmates.

“Right now, we’re still holding, leaving it as is, waiting to see what things look like here in six months,” Sailors said.

Judges weigh in

Fulton Superior Court Judge Greg Heller and Fulton Circuit Court Judge Chris Lee also cited a six-month time frame in determining the effectiveness alternative sentencing and other measures have had on the jail population.

“I think part of what you’re seeing is that both courts are now utilizing community corrections programs on the front end and the back end,” Lee said. “Where that jail population ultimately lands, I think we’re just going to have to have some time with both courts fully participating in the community corrections programs until we know.”

He attributed the jail population decline to several components.

“There’s two ways that you’re seeing the jail population being reduced through community corrections,” said Heller. In addition to the pretrial release program, he also cited his and Lee’s ability to sentence offenders to community corrections, rather than incarceration.

“I think the other thing that’s helping with the jail population is that you have two courts not only utilizing community corrections but getting people over (to court) sooner after they’re arrested to deal with the issue of bail with bond, utilizing pretrial release program, and also looking at each case individually and not trying to take a generic approach as for bail or sentencing,” Heller said. 

Pretrial release 

First is the use of a pretrial release program. 

“One option that we now have through community corrections is to simply release a person on their own recognizance but require that they participate in the pretrial release program,” Lee said. “It’s a way that we can let folks who are awaiting trial have some degree of freedom while they’re awaiting trial without requiring any sort of money bail.” 

Under the program, people charged with non-violent, low-level offenses are either placed on home detention or have some sort of reporting requirements. They are monitored for compliance by the Fulton County community corrections office. Drug screening is required in substance abuse cases. 

“It allows someone to get treatment, be with their loved ones to keep that family unit intact and maintain a job,” Lee said. “That makes sense in a lot of cases, not only for that individual but frankly the community as a whole. Now, another tool is the jail, and sometimes that’s what makes sense.” 

The pretrial release program became a component of community corrections on Jan. 1, 2018. There are currently 21 offenders on the program, with six offenders wearing a GPS device. That’s according to Chief Probation Officer Andy Holland. 

Bond changes 

“Another component that’s helping is the standard bail bond schedule that Judge Lee put together at the end of last year,” Heller added. 

The bond schedule applies to all cases filed in the courts. It allows people charged with a misdemeanor to be released on their own recognizance. 

Some exceptions include cases of domestic violence and if someone is already on probation or has a pending charge. 

“Really, the whole purpose of a bond or bail is to ensure someone’s appearance in court unless they are a threat to the community,” Heller said. “The amended bond schedule that Judge Lee put together is very reflective of what’s going to be statewide in 2020 … It’s a statewide initiative originating from our Supreme Court to try and take a different look at how we’re dealing with the criminal justice system.” 

Transitioning 

Both courts have also implemented a local community transition program, in which offenders may be released 60 days early to start their probationary term. 

That program was largely implemented to address sweeping state criminal code changes that resulted in Level 6 felony offenders being sent to local jails instead of state prisons. Many of those low-level offenders would have been given the opportunity to transition out 60 days early if sentenced to the Indiana Department of Correction

“The local community transition program is doing exactly that,” Lee said. “The probation department is sending us a memo, just like the DOC would have done, making a recommendation if that person is a good candidate for the local community transition program.” 

The ultimate decision lies with the judges. The local program is slightly more strict than that of the Indiana DOC, as offenders released early here are sentenced to home detention with electronic monitoring. 

Substance abuse 

Heller and Lee say methamphetamine abuse is still the biggest problem facing Fulton County. Both recognize there’s a likelihood of offenders with substance abuse disorders washing out of alternative sentencing programs. 

“As judges, honestly, we usually see the bad, but we have a number of success stories and I try and keep that in mind,” Lee said, noting there are many cases in which people are released to treatment  facilities. They are also offered medically assisted treatment to curb drug cravings and alcohol dependency. 

“I think the general outlook that Judge Lee and myself share is we want to give folks a chance,” Heller said. “If they fail, well then that clues us as to what should be the next step.” 

“What’s important for people to understand is this isn’t being soft on sentences, this is not being a catch and release, this is really about trying to structure a sentence that makes sense for the offender and yet still protect the community and take some of the financial burden off the community also,” he continued. “I think what you’re seeing is a whole initiative to get away from a cookie-cutter approach as to how the criminal justice system is run.” 

New drug court 

Fulton County also is expected to launch its first drug court later this year. It will provide wraparound services for an offender who is a known substance abuser. The program would be a minimum of 18 months and tailored to the offender. The purpose is to avoid sending people to jail, treat addiction and prevent recidivism. Heller will be the presiding drug court judge. 

The drug court team involves the judge, prosecutor, a coordinator, case manager, an outside service provider and a public defender. Each offender going through drug court is assessed to determine what services are needed. Requirements for participants would include weekly court visits and meetings with their probation officer, drug screening, counseling and possible work and education goals. 

Drug court is not specifically for first-time offenders. It may also be used for those who have piled up several possession cases and are facing significant jail time. 

“It’s another tool for us to help these folks,” Lee said. “We’re excited to get it up and running.” 

Training is being completed ahead of its launch, and necessary paperwork is being filed with the Indiana Office of Court Services.

©2019 The Sentinel Corporation