For the past few years, the amount of inmates locked up in Lawrence County has hovered too close to capacity for Sheriff Mike Branham’s comfort.
Any reduction in jail numbers would be a welcomed relief.
The proposal, which is currently making its way through the House of Representatives, states a Level 6 felon can be sentenced to the Department of Correction, rather than the local jail, if his probation is revoked, or he commits another criminal offense.
That may not seem like much, but Branham said it would affect some 25 percent of his jail population. A reduction of that size, using this week’s average, could amount to 42 fewer inmates housed in the local jail at any given time. In fact, Branham said he’d be thrilled with just half of that.
Level 6 felons in Lawrence County are typically those who’ve been sentenced to low-level crimes, such as theft, drug possession and repeated operating a vehicle while intoxicated charges.
“That tends to be a majority of what we have,” Branham said. “Although there are a lot of contributing factors, this bill would help without a doubt.”
There are a lot of reasons overcrowding has affected local jails, but one of the main factors came in 2014 with the passage of House Bill 1006, which was a comprehensive overhaul of Indiana’s criminal code — the first in 35 years.
“In 35 years, the world had changed; the justice system had changed,” Koch said.
As a part of the overhaul, Class A, B, C and D felonies were reworked into Level 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 felonies. The revised code also stated Level 6 felons would be housed in county jails, rather than be sent to the DOC, and funding from the state would come with it.
“The goal was to avoid building another state prison, which are costly,” Koch said. “There was also a paradigm shift to include prevention and treatment services as a part of sentencing. ... There was a bipartisan desire to send more resources for prevention and treatment to the local level with the agreement services and the responsibilities would be adequately funded.”
That funding, however, isn’t panning out.
It costs about $55 a day to house a single inmate in Lawrence County, Branham said. The state reimburses the county at $35 a day for Level 6 felons, but only after they have been sentenced. For the time leading up to the sentencing, which could be months, the county must shoulder the entire cost of housing that inmate, if he hasn’t posted bond.
“The opioid crisis also contributed and is still here, so combined, what I’m hearing is this is really, really draining local budgets, and in some cases, it has forced county governments to consider building or build new jails,” Koch said.
“The other good part of this bill is it is allowing us to start conversations with local sheriffs on where we are five years after the General Assembly revised the criminal code. ... On the flip side, it does shift the cost back to the state, so we’re taking it from one place and putting it in another. ... There will be many discussions on the fiscal impact of this bill, ... and it will be a big part of our budget discussions.”
Of course, if SB 319 passes the General Assembly and is made law, the sentencing will still fall on the discretion of local judges, who would be given the option of sentencing those qualifying Level 6 felons to the DOC, rather than the county jail.
“We know the prosecution will push for the DOC while the public defenders will fight it,” Branham said. “But just 20 less people would help us tremendously.”
The Lawrence County jail can house up to 180 inmates, but as a general rule, it should stay below the 80 percent threshold for capacity, but in recent years, that rarely happens. In fact, this week, jail numbers have gone as high as 171 — that’s a lot of people for a jail that was originally built to house 88 inmates.
“It was designed for 88 beds,” Branham explained, “but before they even moved into it in 1990, they realized it was going to be too small so they double-bunked it. Luckily, the cells, square footage wise, were built large enough by jail standards to house two inmates.
“We were up over 200 a couple of times last year. ... The last thing we want is for a federal court to impose restrictions on us, so we have to keep our population at a reasonable number. We don’t ever want to get in that position.”
Although Branham has squeezed out space for inmates, with a jail built for fewer than 100 people, kitchen space remains limited, as does storage space. Branham said the kitchen staff can only keep two days of food supplies on hand, instead of a week, meaning food trucks are making deliveries almost every day. Recreational space had to be converted to cells in 2015 to create additional room for inmates.
The other issue pertains to the bond system. Out of a jail population of 163 Thursday, 63 inmates had bond available, but lacked the means to post it. Branham said 27 of those 63 inmates had a bond of $750 or less.
“A majority of our population is pre-trial,” the sheriff said. “The majority are Level 6.”
Jail overcrowding in recent years isn’t limited to Lawrence County, but Branham hopes to get through his final term as sheriff without building a new jail. This proposed legislation could be the ticket to that.
“If this proposal pans out, we can probably squeeze a few more years out of this jail,” Branham said. “I think there’s a shot we can get through my term without planning for a new jail.”