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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, May 09, 2019 1:00 am

Bigger but not better

Jail construction boom reflects reforms' failure

Oliver Hinds and Jack Norton

Three years after Indiana passed reforms designed to reduce the number of people in jail and prison, there are more incarcerated in the state than ever before.

According to a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, Indiana added more people to its state prison population in 2018 than any other state besides Texas.

The number of people held in state prisons in Indiana has grown for the third straight year, despite a 2015 state law that promised to reduce the prison population.

And the number of people in county jails has increased more than 30% since 2015.

By 2018, the total incarcerated population (county jail and state prison) had surpassed 48,000 for the first time.

The crisis of incarceration in Indiana is deepening. Marion County (Indianapolis) has a jail incarceration rate of 41 people per 10,000 working-age adults. Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), by comparison, has a jail incarceration rate of 11 per 10,000. That's nearly four times higher than Chicago's, yet Marion County's rate is well below the median jail incarceration rate for counties in Indiana, 62 per 10,000.

In a Jan. 20 story, we detailed how Indiana's 2015 reforms failed to produce an intended reduction in jail and prison populations. Now, state and county governments are planning to deal with overflowing jails by building new and bigger facilities.

Last month, Indianapolis and Marion County floated $610 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund a new community justice campus, which will house the county jail, courts, and sheriff's office.

These bonds – managed by Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and UBS – are backed by income taxes. More than $50 million worth of these bonds were bought by residents of Indiana; those with money to invest in bonds will collect interest on a project designed to incarcerate poor people, paid for by taxing the people of Indianapolis.

The planned jail will hold 20% more people than the jails there now, increasing the number of jail beds in the county to 3,000.

The expanded jail also includes an assessment and intervention center planned to provide support and treatment for people struggling with drug use and other mental health disorders.

Providing these crucial services in a jail isn't as effective as community-based care. Calling the new jail a “Community Justice Campus” as if it were an educational institution, and integrating health care services, are just two attempts at window dressing a massive investment in incarceration.

Cook County, Illinois, had a nearly-full jail in 2013. Since then, the number of people there has dropped nearly 50%.

Over the same period, Marion County's jail population has increased by 30%, and the number of women in jail has increased by more than 60%.

This trend is consistent with a statewide increase in the number of women in jail: 47% more now than in 2013.

Marion is not the only county in Indiana investing in incarceration. 

Some 40% of Indiana's counties are in some phase of jail construction, according to our research and that of the Indiana Sheriff's Association.

In the past six months Gibson, Hendricks, Jackson, Madison, Sullivan and Whitley counties have taken steps toward building new jails.

The 2015 prison reforms were sold as kinder, gentler incarceration that would “reduce recidivism.” But the bill led to rapidly increasing jail populations across Indiana. House Bill 1065, recently signed by the governor, would allow the Department of Corrections to take people convicted of a Level 6 felony back from county jail jurisdiction and allow for the construction of facilities designated for Level 6 felons. This would effectively reverse the reforms of 2015, while building a new type of facility for incarceration on top of the ongoing jail boom.

Policies that expand incarceration through increased capacity, under the veneer of progressive punishment, are exactly what led to the current crisis in Indiana's county jails.

Understandably, building bigger jails can seem like a logical response to the problem of overcrowded jails. A better response would be to find ways to keep people out of jail, saving money for struggling counties across the state, and using resources to help strengthen communities for true development and enhanced quality of life.

Three years after Indiana's prison reforms, it is clear that implementing different types of incarceration – reclassifying sentences and playing a carceral shell game between state and county levels – is not effective at reducing the number of people incarcerated in the state. The way to have fewer people locked up, in fact, is to lock fewer people up.

Oliver Hinds is senior data scientist and Jack Norton is a research associate at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice.