Changes to criminal sentencing in Indiana are scheduled to take full effect in July, but county officials want the state to help pay for the additional costs.
Addressing those changes is one of four main issues county officials want state lawmakers to address when they return to Indianapolis for the 2015 legislative session that starts in January. The other three primary issues are opposing the elimination of personal property taxes, increasing or maintaining transportation funding and protections for governmental entities that wish to withdraw contributions from the Indiana Public Employee Retirement System.
The county’s focus on criminal sentencing refers to House Bill 1006, which passed the state legislature earlier this year. The law aims to reduce inmate population in state prisons, but county law enforcement officials across the state have said those changes will require more offenders be housed locally, placing strains on jail capacities and local programming – ultimately costing the county more money.
"We operate a jail that has capacity for 741 (inmates), and we average 96 percent full most of the time," Beth Lock, the county’s governmental affairs director, told a group of state lawmakers at Memorial Coliseum last week. "In fact, we get daily statements to the commissioners, to the judges, on a daily basis looking at how many offenders are in our jails, so that way we don’t trigger any federal mandates, that way we’re not having too many people crowded in there."
Lock addressed the changes and how they affect the county jail while presenting the county’s 2015 legislative platform during a reception for state legislators. Allen County spends between $35 and $45 a day for each inmate at the county jail.
"Obviously, criminal sentencing reform is big," Commissioner Therese Brown said, saying they could dramatically affect the county’s finances.
Under the new law, anyone convicted of a Level 6 felony – such as selling less than one gram of a controlled substance – between June 30, 2014, and July 1, 2015, cannot be sent to the Indiana Department of Corrections if their earliest possible release date is less than 91 days from the date of sentencing. Similarly, anyone convicted of such an offense after June 30, 2015, cannot be sent to the Indiana Department of Corrections if their earliest possible release date is less than 366 days from the date of sentencing.
Lock said the county estimates that in 2015, there will be 135 additional people in Allen County at any given time who will need to be housed in the jail because they have sentences less than one year.
Level 6 felonies were previously known as Class D felonies.
In 2013, Allen County had 504 Class D felony offenders sent to the Indiana Department of Corrections, Lock said. Of those, 202 simply did not qualify for any local programs like work release or community corrections. The other 302 were sent to the department of corrections because their community supervision was revoked.
"A lot of times these were from new arrests, not passing a drug test or just not complying with the program," she said.
Aside from the jail itself, the county is also at capacity when it comes to its work release and community corrections programs.
"In fact, we have a current waiting list of people sitting in the Allen County Jail because there’s not enough room (in these programs)," Lock said. "They qualify for work release, but there’s not enough room to put them in work release. So they sit there until there’s an opening, and sometimes they fulfill their entire sentence sitting in the jail even though they qualify for something else."
Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, who was present for last week’s presentation, said Allen County’s concerns are no different from any other county in the state.
"Everybody is going to have a pinch," he said. "Everybody comes for money, and our job is to prioritize those things and do the best we can at doling out the money and not hurt anybody in the process."
Leonard described the sentencing changes as "rebalancing to step back and take a look at where we are, and logically prioritize criminal confinement."
The new law does mean there will be more offenders housed in county jails, Leonard said. However, he said while he can’t make any promises, there’s a good chance the General Assembly will discuss some form of reimbursement for counties that have to deal with an increase of inmates in county jails.
"That will be talked about, and I don’t know where it’s going to fall in the overall scheme of things, but I’m sure it’s going to be on the table," he said. "I think you’ll see some serious consideration given to helping counties out on funding for incarceration."
The county has identified some ways to address the problem, Lock said, but would want some financial assistance from the state to help pay for the solutions.
"One of the things we’re talking about as a way to deal with this is expanding our work release," she said. "We have looked at a new facility and at purchasing it."
Lock stressed that there have only been preliminary discussions about buying a new facility for the work release program, and no determinations have been made. However, she did say if the county did buy the additional property, it would most likely cost the county about $2 million to $3 million, and would require some renovations.
"(A new facility) would double the work release capacity from approximately 102 to up to 230 and in doing so, it opens up space in the jail, because it’s relieving those on the wait list to the work release," she said. "So we’re opening up 70 to 75 beds in the jail."
But that’s not the only way to address the county’s inmate capacity issue. Lock said if the fourth floor of the jail were completed, which would cost about $1 million, 70 to 80 additional beds could be added.
"So looking at that, we have the capacity to do that with this expansion and this program," she said. "But you can see it’s going to come at a cost to the counties."
That $4 million figure doesn’t include the space and staff for community corrections, which Lock said is also running out of space for participants.
Officials "haven’t even begun to approach the fiscal impact that would have on the county," she said.
To that, Brown said the state needs to be a partner in county efforts to "pick up the tab" and comply with new housing standards for low-level felony offenders.
"We’re interested in that if the state expects us to be able to pick up the tab to do something, they need to be a partner in that whole process," she said. "The judiciary is the state, the prosecutor, in essence, is the state, and they’re doing that on the behalf of the county and everything, the constituents, but this is a partnership."
As new mandates come down from the state, Brown said money needs to accompany those mandates.
"You know, we’re in that stage of where does work release go, downtown redevelopment, they’re wanting us to move the jail – I don’t know if that’s going to happen in the near future, but ultimately, as those individuals become eligible to come back, and/or are sentenced to stay here, we have to have the tools and the money to be able to make these things happen so that we can do what our responsibility is," she said. "So we’re hoping for a strong partnership."