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Marion County pins hopes on bail reform to reduce jail costs

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - At $570 million, Marion County’s new community justice center complex ranks as the most expensive municipal building project in Indianapolis since construction of Lucas Oil Stadium more than a decade ago.

And the new jail will not have a retractable roof.

To avoid filling up 3,000 new jail beds the day the center opens in January of 2022, and will be already pre-positioned for expansion to house another 500 arrestees, Marion County is keeping a close eye on a criminal justice reform pilot program. It was launched by the Indiana Supreme Court and is already showing results in two neighboring central Indiana communities.

Hamilton County Pre-Trial Services Director Stephanie Ruggles said several bail and pre-trial release reforms have had a positive impact on court compliance and the behavior of defendants.

“We have our stats from 2017 and what we showed is our failure to appear rate was just a little over eight percent. When you look at the national averages, its anywhere from 15-19%,” she said. “We do have a success rate of over 76% of our individuals. Those are individuals that had no failure to appears or reports and did not commit a new arrest or have any technical violations while under pre-trial supervision.”

In Hendricks County, Nicholas Rice, pre-trial services officer, reported a 95% compliance rate among defendants released under new bail and monitoring rules.

Ruggles said the key to the pilot program is assuring that only the most dangerous defendants, or those most likely to not show up for court, are held in the crowded Hamilton County Jail, and not low risk arrestees, whose odds of returning on schedule increase if they are allowed to await trial at home.

The Indiana Supreme Court found 56% of the nearly 12,000 people in Indiana county jails a year ago were on pre-trial status.

“There is research out there that indicates that a low risk individual who sits in jail is more likely, once they are released, to commit a new criminal offense,” said Ruggles. “You’re talking about someone who is a low risk in the community, if they sit in jail, they lose their job, they can’t pay their bills, their family suffers so it’s a detriment not only to them but their family as well.”

Dr. Lippi Roy, former Chief of Addiction Medicine at New York’s Rikers Island, cites figures that found that the threat of overdose, murder or suicide is higher the first two weeks after an arrestee is released from jail likely due to reckless or depressed behavior brought on by the stress of incarceration.

As of Friday morning, Hamilton County Sheriff Mark Bowen said his jail was at 97% for male inmates, 75% for females, while work continues on a $13.5 million addition next door to his main facility.

On the same day, Hendricks County reported 262 arrestees, defendants and inmates in a facility built with 252 beds.

The Marion County Jail system’s population last Tuesday was 2,633, 109 over capacity, though 17 offenders were housed in other counties.

Minority firms have thus far received one-third of the one million dollars in contracts let to clear the land for the new Marion County Community Justice Center on E. Prospect St. at the former Citizens Energy Coke Plant.

Macheo Wells estimated he has more than two dozen trucks hauling dirt from the site less than ten years after he was released from serving a stint in federal prison.

“I try to bring guys in and be an example for guys that been through the things that I been through to help them get their skill and knowledge of driving a truck so they can take care of their families.

“It shows that we can do something different than streets and that’s what I try to do.

“Hopefully guys can look at me and see that we can do something different to stay out of prison and jail.”

Clergy members and community leaders who watched Wells’ trucks traverse the site were aware of the irony of minority firms profiting from a court and jail complex where a disproportionate number of the people who will pass through it criminal courtrooms and cell doors will likely be African-American.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2015 African-Americans made up 28.1% of Marion County’s overall population but 58.6% of the jail population, while whites represented 59.3% of the county population, but 46.6% of the people in jail.

“Both colors pass through the center,” said Dr. Wayne L. Moore of the Baptist Ministerial Alliance. “But we come through a little bit more often than others, and when we see opportunities like this as an economic development,  if we can get young people and young women to work in our culture and our community hopefully that won’t be the case out here in our new justice center.”

“A lot of people of color will be in the jail,” said Rev. David Green of the Concerned Clergy. “We need to be a part of the economic side of it in hopes that it will keep people from going to jail if they have jobs, have careers and opportunity to grow their business.”

“There is a disproportionately high number of young African-American males that go through the criminal justice system,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “We are attempting to do everything we can through criminal justice reform to change that trajectory and its not just at the criminal justice center. Its here in the communities, trying to provide them job opportunities, educational opportunities, to try to change their life trajectory away from crime, drugs and other forms of quick and easy money to more productive stable long-term investments in their life productivity.”

Eleven Indiana counties are utilizing various aspects of the pilot program authorized by the supreme court with an eye on eventual expansion of the reform strategies statewide.