In one translation of “The Republic,” the Greek philosopher Plato says, “The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”
This quote came to mind when looking at two interesting facts about Allen County’s criminal justice system, particularly concerning the county’s push for a new 450,000-square-foot jail.
In the week U.S. District Court Judge Damon R. Leichty delivered his opinion last March 29 that the Allen County Jail did not meet constitutional standards due to overcrowding, the total jail population averaged 795.
In his order, Judge Leichty set a target of no more than 732 inmates in the jail – a goal the county has hit every week since June 6. Indeed, the jail’s average inmate population hasn’t exceeded 690 since mid-November.
Part of the decline can be linked to the county ending its intake of federal prisoners. But other factors keep the population from ballooning.
Despite being overcrowded at times during the past year, Allen County has a low jail population for a county its size, according to Cory Miller, president of Elevatus Architecture in Fort Wayne. Miller told the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals earlier this month that about 7% of the people going through the court system are incarcerated because of alternative programs. However, according to county spokesperson Emily Almodovar, that percentage varies and has been as high as 15%.
Allen County has many alternatives to incarceration, including Drug Court, Veterans Court, Restoration Court and home detention. The Allen Circuit Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated Court is Indiana’s first certified OWI-focused problem-solving court.
“(A) cursory look at current alternative programs illustrates the commitment of Allen County to decrease the number of people in jail and to reduce incidents of recidivism while protecting the community and providing the victims of crime with meaningful recompense,” Almodovar said.
For example, the residential services program started in 2020 has increased the number of people eligible for alternative incarceration and rehabilitative programming.
“Jail overcrowding is an ongoing issue in many Indiana counties; Allen County is no exception,” the Allen County Board of Commissioners wrote in a March 1, 2020, op-ed for The Journal Gazette. “Simultaneously, the local judiciary and criminal justice providers struggle to find appropriate recovery residences to place individuals who may be involved in alternative sentencing programs. The demand far exceeds the availability of recovery beds.”
But Allen County’s relative success begs a larger question: Why are we building a new $350 million jail that can house – if expanded beyond current plans – up to 2,836 beds, which is nearly four times more than can legally be housed in the current jail?
The new jail, initially to house 1,336 beds, would be built on 70 acres of the 142-acre site at 3003 Meyer Road. The jail has been downtown for about 40 years, and the county says an expansion there is limited.
In reporting about the zoning board hearing, JG reporter James D. Wolf Jr. wrote that the jail’s design should be finished by the end of April, with a scheduled construction start date in spring 2024.
Elevatus has made a name for itself in bringing modern design principles to incarceration, including how spaces can positively affect inmates. And, thankfully, the commissioners worked with the firm to mitigate concerns from the surrounding community, including literally turning the jail away from homes.
And we are heartened that the commissioners want to include rehabilitation services for inmates. Unfortunately, addiction to drugs and alcohol is rampant and a public health crisis.
Leichty’s judgment did not force the county to build a jail. What growth projections would precipitate Allen County to raise a mammoth building that will be the most expensive project in its history?
According to STATS Indiana, Allen County’s population is expected to be 426,351 by 2045. Our current population is estimated at just under 389,000.
Commissioner Nelson Peters said the county plans to move other operations to the site. Departments that could find a new home at this campus include environmental management and community corrections.
This could prove a smart use of space, considering the county now has 40 different buildings spread throughout its confines. But with no estimates of continuing operating costs, it’s hard for citizens to judge this push for a new jail. The county has not started on that equation yet, Almadovor said.
Overall, Allen County’s courts, prosecutors and community corrections have been inventive in keeping people out of jail, offering counters to incarceration, lowering recidivism and protecting citizens.
So, we wonder whether building a new jail this big is the best answer moving forward.
It is reasonable to ask whether this builds on the successes of our innovative alternatives or represents a giant and expensive step back to the lock-’em-up philosophy of an earlier time.
A statistic was incorrect in the Feb. 25 editorial “Construction costs: County’s innovative criminal justice approaches reduce need for jail beds.” The Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals was told that about 7% of the people through the court system are incarcerated because of alternative programs.