Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett unveils criminal justice reform and new jail project

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Six months of exhaustive study, following years of debate and sometimes failed plans, has resulted in a game-changing half-billion dollar criminal justice reform and new jail proposal that Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett hopes will result in a fairer system and healthier Marion County.

“For it is a heroin epidemic and generational poverty that drives a rise in crime,” said Hogsett during his unveiling of a six-month long study. “A rise in crime creates an overcrowded jail, and an overcrowded jail and an overburdened system that drives budgets into the red. Today Indianapolis begins reforming its criminal justice system.”

The 124-page Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Taskforce report makes 19 specific recommendations to revamp and streamline Marion County criminal justice, from the first 911 phone call for help through the release of an offender back into the community.

Key to the reform is “off ramping” persons with mental illness or substance abuse issues into social and treatment programs so as not to clog up the courts and fill expensive high security beds at a new Marion County Jail.

“The time has come for us to meaningfully identify non-violent low level offenders suffering from serious mental illnesses and drug addiction,” said the mayor whose address was interrupted several times by applause from a packed Old City Hall rotunda as stakeholders, taskforce members, city county council members and police and sheriffs personnel gathered to hear the proposal Hogsett called bold and immense. “We must enhance our ability to divert them from the criminal justice system and provide them the treatment they desperately need from health care professionals.”

A maximum 3000-bed jail would be the centerpiece of a proposed criminal justice complex, estimated to cost a half billion dollars at a site yet to be determined, that would include courts, the sheriff’s office, a medical facility, community corrections and possibly prosecutors and public defender offices.

“If we focus exclusively on facilities and not on how the justice system is, in many respects, unjust, we can expect the same result: more crime more tax dollars wasted,” said Hogsett. “Our approach will no longer be facilities oriented. The question is not, ‘How many jail beds do we need?’ The question is, rather, ‘How many jail beds can we avoid?’”

Final cost of the proposed campus would be higher or lower depending upon potential relocation of Marion County’s 36 courts, possible involvement of a private developer, the cost of municipal bonds to finance the project and the ability of current agencies to conclude leases held by private landlords.

Current jail sites, such as the Arrest Processing Center and Jail II would be repurposed for treatment and community corrections services.

“It’s a win-win-win for everyone to put this together,” said Sheriff John Layton. “We can sure make the taxpayers and the people of Marion County proud of our criminal justice system and I think we’re taking a huge step.”

Planners estimate the county would save $35 million a year, currently budgeted, on consolidated services and agencies.

Hogsett has promised reforms with no tax increase.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry is less certain about the potential cost savings as he said any reforms will require additional staffing and the courts and some agencies may not want to or be able to relocate in a timely fashion.

Curry estimates it may take up to six years to complete the project which could result in both the perception of fairer, more efficient dispensation of criminal justice in Marion County, and possibly a healthier populace as more people find themselves referred for treatment.

“Not only is it the right thing to do to deal with individual’s mental health issues but there’s a secondary benefit and that is to not be utilizing the resources of the police department, of probation or the courts, the prosecutor’s office and the public defenders office for these individuals who kind of flow through repeatedly in the criminal justice system.”

Bond reform, expanding upon a current matrix that allows judges to assess an offender’s risk to the community or non-return for future court dates as opposed to the ability to raise cash for bail, might significantly reduce the number of incarcerated offenders who are jailed pending trial.

Other recommendations include: efficiencies in identifying offenders, better police report management and filing, improving mental health and substance abuse screening, issuing electronic traffic tickets and trial date reminders and consolidating the evidence room responsibility and operations.

“This new plan is going to take these folks who are in so much need of help and put them in a different category, in a different area than the Marion County Jail which is going to save our budget,” said Layton, “but that means taxpayer money because right now we’re simply warehousing these people at such a high cost and we will be able to get them the help and maybe keep them from every coming back.”

Layton said a state-of-the-art jail, to replace the county’s current outdated facility which was built in the mid-1960s, would be safer and might result in a reduction of his sheriff’s staff by 50 percent over time.

“No matter what it ends up looking like I can assure you that its going to be so much far advanced from what we are dealing with today and it will be better for the public, it will be better for the inmates and it’ll be better for the tax dollars.”

The mayor’s administration faces a self-imposed January 31st deadline to identify one of approximately a dozen sites in the running to be home of the proposed criminal justice campus with design, construction and financing plans to be completed by the end of 2017.

Former Mayor Greg Ballard proposed private construction of a $480 million criminal justice complex with an eventual 30-year lease cost to the county of $1.8 billion.

Hogsett’s staff estimates that the final cost of the taskforce’s proposed campus would rival that of the Ballard plan and, for comparison, Lucas Oil Stadium, based on higher municipal financing and construction expenditures while still being more economical for taxpayers in the long run.

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