INDIANAPOLIS — Crowded jail conditions in Indiana are being affected by a lack of coordination among sheriffs, judges and treatment providers, officials said Tuesday.
There’s also been an increase in inmates sentenced as Level 6 offenders, the lowest level of felonies in Indiana. Judges are allowed to consider reducing Level 6 sentences to misdemeanors among other options.
“There is, I think, sometimes a disconnect between our prosecutors and our judges about how we sentence people,” Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding told an Indiana Senate committee.
The inmate population at the Vanderburgh County Jail has been, on average, above its 558-inmate maximum, officials said. The jail serves numerous agencies including Indiana State Police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2015, there were 204,778 criminal cases, including felonies and misdemeanors, filed in Indiana, rising to 224,041 in 2018, said David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
However, jail and state prison populations continue to increase along with a rise in community corrections cases, he said.
In 2014, the state changed criminal penalties and Level 6 crimes can be reduced to misdemeanors. The sentence is between six months and two and a half years. Inmates are often assigned to county jails or in community corrections instead of an Indiana Department of Correction (DOC) prison facility.
The shift is due to more filing of Level 6 crimes with 43,000 in 2015 and 57,942 last year. Level 6 is the lowest level of felony crimes.
Powell said the top offenses among DOC prisoners are burglary, accounting for 12 percent; murder at 9.6 percent; child molesting at 8.5 percent; dealing in cocaine or a narcotic at 8.7 percent; robbery at 8.4 percent and dealing in methamphetamine at 8 percent. Among those, 17 percent of the total DOC population has committed a crime related to cocaine, narcotics or meth.
Powell added, “There was an assumption that public health would be able to respond adequately to the addiction needs and it just hasn’t. There is a desert out there in terms of treatment services. We do not have enough providers. We do not have enough money in it. I would say public health is overwhelmed right now. Getting mental health care is a challenge. If there is no public health option for treating mental health care, the default is the county jail.”
Officials acknowledged a gap in obtaining data about prisoners, sometimes taking two months to gather. Challenges vary among counties concerning mental health treatment programs, tracking repeat offenders and releasing inmates using state evidence-based decision making (EBDM) practices.
About a third of current jail inmates simply can’t afford bail, the Indiana Sheriffs' Association said.
The state has initiated pilot program in 11 counties, including Madison, Vigo and Howard counties, to look at inmate resources including pretrial supervision.
From November 2017 through December 2018, there were 47,284 people serving Level 6 crimes but who were not in the state DOC system, said Mary Kay Hudson of the Indiana Office of Court Services.
In general, the average time served by inmates while awaiting trial was 51 days. But the average time served pre-trial on Level 6 charges was 61 days.
Hamilton County law enforcement officials have been housing high-risk inmates leading to an increase in use of the jail from a 92 percent utilization in 2017 to 94 percent in 2019.
“So they have a very good idea of who is in the jail and how they’re spending those resources,” Hudson said.
In Indiana, more than 30 counties are contemplating new or expanded jails, Powell said. Eight counties have projects underway to add 5,400 new beds at an average cost of $145,900 per bed.
In the Indiana General Assembly, House Bill 1065, which has been sent to the Senate, would allow a county sheriff to contract with the Indiana Department of Correction to transfer an offender from the county jail to a regional holding center that would be operated by the DOC if the county jail is overcrowded.