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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 7:33 pm

State plans more prison cell units

Niki Kelly The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana will build eight prison cell units in 2017 and 2018 to cope with a rising prison population.

The increases come despite a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill passed by lawmakers that was supposed to reduce overall Indiana Department of Correction population by sending many low-level offenders to county jails or community corrections programs.

Aaron Garner of the DOC said population has dropped initially but will start to rise again in 2017.

That is because legislators also reduced credit time for many offenders, which means most felons will spend at least 75 percent of their sentence in prison. This is up from 50 percent.

And by early 2017 the state runs out of beds for adult males.

Legislators on the State Budget Committee hearing the presentation Wednesday seemed distressed by the news.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, noted that during the legislative session there were differing projections floating around from the DOC, Legislative Services Agency and a third-party contractor.

She questioned what assumptions the DOC is using, and Garner said it is a mix of new advisory sentences and historical sentencing trends. Judges have new discretion in sentencing in the law, but it’s unclear whether they will use it.

"Until we get a better feel for sentencing practices under the new law we just don’t know," Garner said.

Five housing units will be added to Miami Correctional Facility and three at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.

The construction cost is expected to be about $50 million, with units expected to be ready starting in January 2017 through April 2018. Additional operating funds are needed as well.

DOC Commissioner Bruce Lemmon said the justice reform might have accelerated the need for prison beds somewhat, but "we would have had to build eventually anyway."

The department asked for an increased budget in other areas as well. The base would rise 3 percent, and other increases would go to food and medical contracts; more prison guards; and utility infrastructure.

Overall, the budget sought would rise from $683 million appropriated for the current fiscal year 2015 to $700 million in fiscal year 2016 and $705 million in fiscal year 2017.

"This is not an easy job to have," Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said of running the Department of Correction.

nkelly@jg.net