INDIANAPOLIS — Lawmakers are throwing in the towel on a main pillar behind Indiana’s 2014 criminal justice overhaul.
The goal then was to divert drug addicts and low-level offenders from state prisons to local treatment and supervision to reduce recidivism.
That part of the reform began Jan. 1, 2016. And after five years — with many county jails overflowing with inmates — lawmakers last week passed legislation that could see many of these low-level offenders returned to a state prison. House Bill 1004 passed the House 90-3 and is now moving to the Senate.
“We’re giving up and we haven’t fully put our shoulder to it,” said Bernice Corley, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. “We were putting more building blocks in place; … This happened out of nowhere.”
Corley said the state never provided the money to expand mental health, addictions and community supervision programs. And local judges never bought into it – still using incarceration as the primary tool in sentencing instead of counties embracing community corrections and probation.
“Crison overcrowding is the tipping point,” Corley said.
The bill is not a warrant. But it gives local judges the discretion to send Level 6 offenders to state jails instead of county jails.
“I totally agree,” said Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull. “They didn’t give us any money.”
The Allen County jail, which is regularly overcrowded, is the subject of a 2020 federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that alleges inmate rights are being violated. County commissioners are reviewing all options for a new jail that could cost $150 million.
A tax impact statement said an average of 14,760 people each year from 2012 to 2014 were committed to the Indiana Department of Corrections. Between 2016 and 2020 – after the Tier 6 change – this average dropped to 8,840.
In fiscal year 2021, 28,589 people were convicted and sentenced for a Level 6 felony. Of those, 15,936 were placed in county jail for one or more days. Level 6 felonies, the lowest tier of felonies, include certain assault and battery, break and enter, theft of property between $750 and $50,000, counterfeiting and drug possession.
Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, the author of the legislation, admits the growing prison population is a concern. He said it was inhumane for people to sleep on mattresses on the floor of a prison.
But Frye said that was not the main reason for the bill. He said many counties — especially in rural Indiana — lack adequate mental health and addictions services, while the Indiana Department of Corrections has them readily available.
“If we don’t treat people, they will come back,” Frye said.
He said the legislation is not a mandate and the judges who have the details of the case should make the final decision.
“When we did (the reform), we thought we were doing the right thing,” Frye said. “For some communities, that’s not right.
The Indiana Department of Corrections says he has enough room. Its maximum capacity is 29,079, and as of December 1, the population was 23,035.
But when criminal justice reform was discussed in 2013, alarm bells rang. And even after the reform, the Department of Corrections predicted that its population would exceed 31,000 inmates in 2019 and exceed the secure holding capacity for adult males in 2018.
The Department of Corrections refused a maintenance request but built a new Westville Correctional Facility with 4,000 beds. This location currently has approximately 3,500 beds.
Frye also noted that the cost to the state will be lower under the bill — $12 a day to house a prisoner versus the $37.50 a day the state pays county sheriffs for level offenders. 6.
Corley argues that Level 6 offenders will not be able to use Department of Correction programs. The maximum sentence is 30 months, with most being less than that. The good behavior credit reduces sentences behind bars. And those who were in prison before their trial are credited for the time served when they are sentenced.
“Level 6 offenders probably won’t be around long enough to use these programs,” she said. “If I was the Indiana Department of Corrections, I wouldn’t be happy. They already have a line to access recovery services.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the state has funded some pilot programs where counties can apply for grants. And the results showed a marked drop in recidivism.
“But we are still waiting to fully fund it. It was up to us to do it, and we never did,” he said. “And so the sheriffs are frustrated and we have come to this point. While I don’t like that it’s a surrender, I think it’s a practical thing we need to do.