INDIANAPOLIS — Governor Eric Holcomb has signed into law legislation to reverse a move in 2014 to send low-level felons back to county jails to serve their sentences.
HB 1006 succeeded eight years ago in reducing the state’s prison population and permitting the Indiana Department of Correction to close some facilities and allowed offenders to serve their time closer to home and family.
The plan also exploded sheriffs’ budgets, crowded jail cells and denied offenders the type of services and programs typically available to them at the state level.
“It put us in a position where we had to add on to our jail because of the crowding,” said Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess. “Out of 380 offenders we currently have in the jail, 60 of those are level six felons.”
Now, under House Enrolled Act 1004, as of July 1 any offender sentenced to a level six felony will be once again eligible for incarceration at a state facility.
Last month, the IDOC website listed 22,260 inmates under the state’s authority. 1,811 of them were designated as felony six offenders serving time in county jails.
Regarding suburban Indianapolis counties, the number of felons housed at local jails ranges from 16 in Boone County to 57 in Hancock County.
Morgan County Sheriff Rich Myers said 10% of his jail population are offenders who should be housed in state facilities, and when the new law goes into effect, he expects to see a reduction in costs.
“I think the numbers are gonna lower us down. I think it’s gonna help the jails throughout Indiana that are overcrowded,” said Myers. “It’s obviously gonna help us on our food. It’s gonna help us on our taxpayers providing for what they have to pay for us here and be able to get those numbers down to push those out to the DOC.”
Morgan County Jail Commander Dave Rogers said local jails don’t have the facilities, programs or services for offenders who serve longer state sentences.
“Most jails in Indiana were built in the ’80s and ’90s, so they were never built for programming, they were just designed to house folks and sent them out to the DOC after they were sentenced,” he said. “Like medical issues, getting those folks back up to DOC where they have facilities to treat medical conditions. We don’t. We have to use local hospitals, which are more costly, and [we’re] just not staffed for long term for folks who require that.”
Burgess said that as bed space becomes available with the placement of offenders in state facilities, his own jail will not only be less crowded but deputies will be able to better assist offenders, especially those struggling with substance abuse or mental illness issues.
“It’s gonna give us room where we’re gonna have room to go to our programming, do different programs to help these inmates with maybe not returning back to custody.”
The DOC indicated that judges will still have the option in some cases to order convicted defendants to serve their time locally. Burgess said that while one goal of the 2014 legislation was to provide easier visitation access for families of offenders, with most visits now occurring virtually over a video screen, the location of an inmate’s housing is no longer a significant issue.