Officials in Johnson County work to ease jail overcrowding

FRANKLIN, Ind - Officials in Johnson County are taking steps this week to ease the overcrowding at the county jail.

“Today I have 397 individuals in the jail that’s supposed to house 322,” said Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox. “I’ve been up as high as 413 in the past couple weeks.”

The overcrowding situation has been brewing over the last couple years, since a 2014 change in state law required more low-level felons to serve their sentences in local jails rather than state prisons. That, coupled with Johnson County’s growing population and increasing drug-related crime, has pushed the jail population well above its official capacity.

“You need more money for medical care; you need more money for inmate clothing; you need more money for everything that involves an inmate here,” Cox said.

In addition to putting a strain on jail staff and budgets, the overcrowding makes it more difficult to prevent fights between inmates and staff, Cox said. It’s also more difficult separate inmate populations based on required security levels.

“We don’t want a child molester in with a murder because that child molester may not survive in the same housing area as a murderer,” said Cox.

Ideas in previous years to expand the jail or convert recreational space into living space have not materialized. A $23 million plan to expand the jail was rejected by Johnson County voters in 2010. Another idea to utilize space in the county’s juvenile facility for adult inmates is still being discussed by some county officials. That, too, has not become reality.

Cox and Prosecutor Brad Cooper believe the most likely solution will come when Johnson County Commissioners approve final plans to build a new Community Corrections facility near the existing facility. According to current plans, the new facility would be able to take in 160 inmates for work release, rehabilitation and other programs, easing the jail overcrowding.

But with less than two years left in office, Sheriff Cox doubts the new facility will be built and ready in time to help him deal with the overcrowding issue.

“I want to help that next Sheriff out,” Cox said. “Hopefully to where they won’t have the problems that I apparently am going to have for my last two years in office.”

Cooper agrees the new facility will be a big help, but not any time soon.

“If they started constructing it today, it would not be done until some time in 2018,” Cooper said. “So that’s not going to be an immediate fix.”

Cooper and Johnson County Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes hope to provide small relief this week by clearing the court schedule to make room for sentencing hearings. Many inmates sitting in the jail are awaiting sentencing or other court hearings. This Thursday, Judge Emkes will set aside divorce cases and other civil matters to move as many criminal cases through the court system as possible.

“Right now we have fourteen or fifteen cases,” Cooper said. “And if they all go through, that would be fourteen or fifteen less people in our jail because they’d be in prison.”

Cooper said one barrier to resolving criminal cases is simply getting sufficient time before the judge. This Thursday, and more days like it, will be a small step toward freeing up space in the jail.

“And if we have to do it on the weekends, we’ll do it on the weekends,” he said. “But she’s making that time available so we can get these cases through.”