Senate considers bill to reduce county jail overcrowding

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — A bill to reduce the number of state inmates serving their sentences in county jails survived its second reading without amendments and seems poised for passage in the Indiana Senate.

HB 1078 would provide judges with more options to send low level felons back to the Department of Correction to finish serving their sentences.

Right now, in a bid to reduce state costs and house inmates closer to home, Level 6 offenders are sent to county jails to serve their terms.

The new sentencing provision, enacted on January 1, 2016, did not provide any extra money to sheriffs tasked with housing state inmates, leaving county jails crowded and budgets stretched.

“It’s hard to find beds if you need beds in the state of Indiana right now, so that has to be a concern of taking a big portion of these back to DOC,” said Marion County Sheriffs Colonel James Martin, who housed state offenders as far away as Elkhart County once his own jail reached capacity, “and often we shipped those inmates to counties that were further away than if they were at DOC.”

“We were up to ten other counties where we were spreading inmates out.”

The capacity of the Marion County Jail system is set at 2507 beds.

Through enhanced processes and streamlined case management in the courts, today’s Marion County Jail population was listed at 2378, with 378 of those offenders serving state sentences at the local level.

Martin said the DOC reimburses his jail about half the cost it incurs in housing state offenders.

“There’s definitely not enough money to support it,” he said. “It definitely costs us money every year. At $35 a day, we do not recover the money it costs us to house an inmate.”

There is a move at the statehouse to raise the per diem rate.

Republican Senator Aaron Freeman of Indianapolis said the bill he’s co-sponsored would give judges more leeway to send offenders to DOC who are currently eligible for local incarceration.

“If you’re a second time and this is your third felony, you’ve been convicted of a felony twice, this is your third time, or you’re a violent offender, you’re gonna automatically go to the Department of Correction this time as opposed to starting out at your county jail,” said Freeman. “If you start at the local jail and you get out and have a probation violation or there’s an issue, you get re-arrested, any violation of your probation, things like that, the judge would then have the option to send you to the Department of Correction as well, which would further help our county jail population.”

Freeman said the law to send felons back home to serve their state sentences did not save taxpayers any money even though the DOC closed two facilities.

“The Department of Correction still has a budget, and even though they’ve closed prisons, and we don’t send these low-level felons to the DOC, the DOC hasn’t saved any money. It may have allowed DOC to spend money in other places and for other programs, but the state certainly hasn’t seen any savings from keeping the low-level felons in the county jail.”

Freeman expects the bill to pass the Senate on its third reading this week and head to a conference committee to work out any differences before returning for a final vote.

Marion County is currently spending nearly $600 million to build a community justice center, which will include a new jail on East Prospect Street.

All across the state, sheriffs and county commissioners are building new jails or adding on to current facilities to handle more offenders.

Wednesday is Indiana Sheriffs Day at the statehouse, when lawmen from across Indiana will call on lawmakers to plead their case.

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