For most of the past decade, Johnson County has ranked in the top 10 of all Indiana counties for the number of inmates sent to prison each year.
The county’s place in the state has been as high as No. 5 and as low as No. 11. Last year, Johnson County ranked third among central Indiana counties for inmates sent to state prisons, behind Hamilton and Marion counties.
With 329 inmates sent to state prisons last year, Johnson County tied for No. 10 in the state with Lake County in northwest Indiana, which has a population more than three times as large.
For the offenders sent to prison from Johnson County, more than half were charged with the lowest level felony, which includes theft, drug possession and a repeat charge of driving under the influence.
A large number of those often are people who have been sentenced to probation for a previous conviction and then violated the terms of that program, such as by committing another crime or failing a drug test.
In the past, the county would automatically send those people to finish their sentence in prison, which contributed to the county being in the top 10 for sending people to prison, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.
But that has changed. Under recently approved legislation, counties no longer are allowed to send people to prison if their sentence is a year or less.
For the county, that means officials have to look at other options for people convicted of the lowest level felony or sent to prison to serve the rest of their probation sentence.
The Johnson County jail recently added 18 beds inside by reconfiguring some space but doesn’t have more room, Sheriff Doug Cox said.
The jail population was at 268 last week, less than the maximum capacity of 322, but he worries about how that number could be affected as more offenders are kept here. So far, numbers have stayed low because the new rules have not been in place long, and judges and prosecutors have worked together with the jail population in mind, Cox said.
The other option officials are pushing is to build a new, larger community corrections facility that would house the work release and home detention programs, along with classes for offenders.
County officials have been discussing the details of what should be included in a new $4 million to $5 million community corrections facility and know they want to have enough space to house 160 to 170 offenders, sufficient office space and at least two classrooms. Commissioners recently approved hiring DLZ to design the facility but would still need approval from the county council to spend the money to build it.
If approved, the new center would be years away, so the county is looking at how it punishes offenders who have violated their probation. Officials will need to make a list of criteria, based on how serious the violation was, to determine who serves time in jail or on another program, Cooper said.
That’s something the courts, prosecutor’s office, probation and police are all working on together — deciding who should face jail time, who should be sent to a community corrections program and who should face other sanctions, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.
Someone who violates probation by committing a new crime would still be eligible for a prison sentence, but if they break the terms of the program, such as failing a drug or alcohol test or not reporting to their probation officer, they wouldn’t, he said.
The goal is to continue to be sure that any repercussions for a violation still discourage people from breaking the rules of the program, Cooper said.