An offender sleeps in the hallway outside the cells in Cell Block “D” in the Vigo County Jail. The Terre Haute jail is under a court order to control its inmate population, and the county is building a new 496-bed, $56.1 million facility. CNHI News Indiana photo by JIm Avelis
An offender sleeps in the hallway outside the cells in Cell Block “D” in the Vigo County Jail. The Terre Haute jail is under a court order to control its inmate population, and the county is building a new 496-bed, $56.1 million facility. CNHI News Indiana photo by JIm Avelis
INDIANAPOLIS — A restructuring of Indiana’s criminal justice system was designed to relieve the stress on Indiana’s prison system, but shifted the burden to county jails, with the number of jail sentences increasing by 368% since 2015.

A Jail Overcrowding Task Force studied the issue in the fall of 2018, soon realizing that the counties used 20 different data collection systems. Some transported inmates to neighboring counties with open bed space while others crammed cells with multiple inmates.

“It’s very difficult to put a finger on what’s causing jail overcrowding,” committee member state Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, said in late January while introducing bill HB 1346 (, which accepts the task force’s findings.

The origins of the overpopulation problem in county jails trace to 2010, when legislators learned that the Indiana prison population was projected to increase by 21% in seven years, costing the state an estimated $1.2 billion, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

In 2015, another bill assigned $80 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment at local facilities while simultaneously assigning low-level offenders with Level 6 felonies, convicted of crimes such as drug possession, to serve their sentences in county jails rather than prison.

Combined, these two actions reduced Indiana’s prison population by 27%, as reported in a December evaluation by the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council, a part of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

But the burden of incarceration costs was shifted from the state onto county jails, and their populations exploded.


When John Plasse became the sheriff of Vigo County just over a year ago, he inherited a cramped, aging jail.

The conditions persist despite a federal lawsuit that capped the jail capacity at 268.

On Feb. 11, Vigo County had the responsibility for 326 inmates; 293 were housed in the county jail. The remaining 33 were housed in other counties.

Plasse estimated it cost the county $400,000 last year to house inmates in other counties, not including costs for transporting inmates to and from court appointments.

“We’ve never been, since I’ve been sheriff, under 268,” he said. “For many years it’s been that way. That’s what obviously brought about the lawsuit. The county admitted that we are operating an unconstitutional jail, and that’s why we’re taking steps to build a new, constitutionally adequate jail.”

Vigo County broke ground on the new jail in December, choosing a design and site that could be expanded, estimating it would take about two years to complete the 496-bed facility at the cost of a $56.1 million bond.

“It’s a really big expense to build a new jail at today’s prices,” Plasse said. “I believe that we’ll need to expand larger than the 496 (beds). I hope I’m wrong but … I still don’t see that being adequate.”

Increased arrests for the use of illegal drugs have contributed to the rise of county jail populations.

“I’m going to say upwards of 80, 90% are here indirectly because of drug use or abuse,” Plasse said, noting that the prevalence of drug cases prompted the facility to establish a relationship with the Hamilton Center, a regional behavioral health system, to help inmates with addictions.

Treating the symptoms of withdrawals, Plasse said, has lowered the number of violent incidents in the facility and encouraged better behavior. Treating addictions is “the right thing to do,” he said, noting that the Hamilton Center also provides support for inmates with mental illnesses.

“In the past, jails … they’re not meant for rehabilitation, more of a short-term holding facility until they go to (state prison). We’ve seen that change so much,” Plasse said. “We’re trying to help people, and we’re becoming much more than a place to incarcerate.”

But those programs cost money -- money that many counties don’t have to spare.


A National Institute of Corrections report points out that a needed increase in financial resources for pretrial services and defense counsel representation for indigent defendants in misdemeanor cases is out of reach for many counties.

“Most ... do not have sufficient local funding to support the staffing needed to effectively implement legal and evidence-based pretrial services,” the report on evidence-based decision making says.

The Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council reported the same need in its annual evaluation: “The fact is well known that many counties face extreme hardships with providing (mental health and substance abuse) services either due to a lack of resources … or a lack of adequate funding.”

In another part of the report, stakeholders echoed concerns about increasing populations.

“Collectively, counties believe that the criminal code reform was an ‘unfunded mandate from the state to house and treat low-level felons at the local level,’” the report concluded. “Assuming that all counties had the appropriate resources to successfully accomplish this goal was far-fetched.”

The sheriffs, county leaders and judges interviewed, all anonymously, told the council they believe money should be used to “enhance treatment and recovery systems in their communities, particularly in rural areas.”

In 2019 across the country, two-thirds of jails exceeded 80% capacity, the limit for effectively maintaining a facility, and more than a third were over capacity.

The report also said that overcrowding can increase violence, exchange of contraband and breakdowns in security or maintenance.


The expansion of mandatory minimums, adoption of three-strike laws and decreases in community resources available for people with mental illnesses also contributed to incarceration increases, according to the National Institute of Corrections' jail planning guide

“During the past 30 years, jails nationwide have become crowded in response to policy shifts in the criminal justice system, including the clampdown on driving under the influence, the adoption of mandatory arrests for domestic violence and the 'get tough' approach to many drug crimes,” the guide says.

The guide also notes incarceration rates and jail bed occupancy are influenced more by local policies than by the actual prevalence of crime.

Though Texas increased its incarceration rate by 139% between 1991 and 2001, crime decreased by 34%. In New York, the incarceration rate over the same decade increased by 11% but the crime rate decreased by 53%, according to the guide.


The Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council evaluation reported that more than half of Hoosiers incarcerated in jails are being held pre-trial, or without a conviction.

To reduce this number, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana suggests enabling speedy trials, granting greater access to public defenders and expanding mandatory cite-and-release policies.

The ACLU released a state-by-state blueprint for “smart justice” reform, outlining ways Indiana could reduce its jail and prison populations.

Katie Blair, the ACLU director of Advocacy and Public Policy in Indiana, said that jail and prison populations really “skyrocketed due to an influx of people convicted of low-level felonies,” many of which are driven by addiction or mental illness.

According to the ACLU report for Indiana, increasing alternative detention for drug convictions and decreasing time spent behind bars for those convictions could impact 3,819 people over the next decade, ultimately saving nearly $54 million in incarceration costs.

“We could move toward decriminalization of personal drug use in favor of an evidence-based, public health policy approach to what is a public health problem,” Blair said.

"Access to treatment for both addiction and mental health issues is essential. (When) we address it through public health (and) evidence-based approaches that we know will work instead of locking folks up, we’re going to see those overcrowding trends really start to drop.”

HB 1076 ( has the potential to cut into the number of people held pre-trial, according to Blair. Authored by state Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, the bill would enable law enforcement to issue a summons to appear in court for certain misdemeanors, rather than taking the person into custody.

“This legislation would keep people from being housed in county jails as they await trial for sometimes petty crimes,” Pryor said in a press release. “We can and should do better.”

The bill passed the House with only one dissenting vote and has been assigned to a Senate committee.

But Blair has concerns about another bill that could contribute to overcrowding. SB 449 ( would allow for children as young as 12 to be imprisoned as adults.)

Research shows that children incarcerated as adults are at higher risk of suicide, sexual abuse and other harm, making it much harder to rehabilitate someone post-incarceration, as detailed in an Indiana Law Journal article.

“Jails aren’t equipped to meet kids' needs … and they should be protected by the law,” Blair said.

The ACLU report also advocates for reducing incarcerations caused by technical parole violations, which can include missing a drug test.

“Whenever we add these additional barriers and additional hoops, we’re setting folks up to fail,” Blair said. “We really need to be focusing on ways to make it easier for people to live their lives.”
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