Indiana's 2015 sentencing reform law allows most nonviolent, Level 6 felony offenders to remain in their home counties instead of being shipped away to state prison. That's a good thing, theoretically. Inmates would be nearer to family and have more access to options such as addiction treatment and work-release. Legislators hoped the new law could also reverse the exponential growth of Indiana's prison population and prevent the need to build expensive new state facilities.
Unfortunately, that also shifted the financial burden of caring for those prisoners from the state to the counties. In larger counties such as Allen, that makes “sentencing reform” seem more like a clever bait-and-switch scheme.
For each of those county inmates who previously would have been in the care of the state Department of Correction, the state reimburses the local jail $35 a day, a number established in 1990 or 1991, according to Stephen Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriff's Association. During the recently concluded legislative session, the association asked for rates to be raised to $55 a day, but two bills that would have accomplished that languished, Luce said. After more lobbying, lawmakers were persuaded to write an increase into the state budget that will raise the per diem to $37.50 during the next fiscal year, and to $40 the following year.
In the days before sentencing reform, Luce said, state prisoners were sometimes housed in county jails when they were being transferred or serving short sentences. The House Bill 1006 criminal code overhaul four years ago changed that trickle of prisoners to a torrent. “You were looking at 2,500 prisoners a year who were shifted back to the counties,” Luce said. At about the same time, he noted, most Indiana jails were also hit by another mountain of unexpected expenses – the cost of caring for inmates addicted to opioids or methamphetamine.
In some rural counties, the soon-to-be $37.50 per diem may be adequate to cover the basic costs of housing inmates, Luce said, but most of those smaller jails need more money to care for prisoners with addiction problems.
And in larger jails, including Allen County's, the per diem rates set almost 30 years ago don't even meet basic expenses. “It currently costs us $57.50 a day to house a prisoner,” Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters said Wednesday. Last fall, the jail was sometimes housing more than 100 prisoners a day who would have previously been sent to state prison, and the total inmate population, which is not supposed to exceed 741, sometimes ran to more than 800. In October, Sheriff David Gladieux said the state's reimbursement levels represented “an unfunded mandate” and estimated the new prisoners the jail had absorbed would cost the county about three-quarters of a million dollars a year.
For some reason, Peters said, the jail population has dropped to below suggested capacity in recent months. But the facility is still losing money for every inmate it holds who formerly would have been lodged with the state Department of Correction.
Luce said the sheriffs' association plans to continue the fight for a more realistic per diem rate. It may require stair-stepping the increases over several more years, he said, or perhaps getting the state to meet the differing costs of housing inmates county by county.
That, Luce suggests, is what the authors of the sentencing-reform law may really have intended.
Peters said he was encouraged by the small increase – “There is now some acknowledgement of the problem from members of the General Assembly.” But he is urging northeast Indiana counties and the sheriffs' association to continue the fight.
“It's a great start,” he said. “But $37.50 and $40 is just a start. They're going to have to continue to rattle the saber.”