For months, the county jail has had significantly more inmates than it should, and Johnson County is not alone.

Across the state, nearly half of all county jails — 44 out of 91 — are housing more inmates than their capacity. At least four have more than twice as many as they should, according to a study by a statewide sheriff’s office association.

Earlier this week, the Johnson County jail, with a capacity of 322 inmates, housed 416 inmates.

The overcrowding issue is one local officials have been discussing for years, and especially in the last several months, as the number of people in the jail continued to creep up.

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

And now, lawmakers are being asked to take up the issue.

Overcrowding has been a key topic of discussion for a summer study committee of lawmakers, who are looking at a number of factors that contribute to the number of inmates in county jails and what could be done to address the issue.

One topic of discussion has been state legislators’ decision in 2014 to have the lowest level felons serve their sentences in county jails, rather than state prisons. That has increased the number of inmates in county jails, including in Johnson County, while also reducing the number in state prisons, even leading one state facility to close.

But even if that legislation wasn’t in place, one-third of jails in the county would still be overcrowded, according to a study by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

For example, in Johnson County, at the time of the study, 48 inmates — or 15 percent of the total in the jail at the time — were serving their sentences after a conviction on the lowest level felony. But another 261 inmates — or 81 percent of those in the jail at the time — were waiting for their case to go through the court system.

State lawmakers are considering different options that would help alleviate the crowding in county jails, but changing the legislation about where the lowest level felons serve their sentences isn’t on that list, said Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis. Young is chairman of the corrections and criminal law committee and formerly represented portions of northern Johnson County.

One of the reasons that legislation was changed was so that offenders who have committed non-violent felonies could benefit from programs within their community to help them recover from substance abuse or mental health issues, so they could become productive citizens, Young said. Those types of programs are not available in state prisons.

“Prison is for people we are afraid of, not mad at,” Young said.

A bigger issue lawmakers are considering is how to get people out of jail on bond while they are waiting for their criminal case to be resolved, which accounts for more than half of the inmates in county jails, he said.

What is preventing those inmates from being released is a key question, he said.

“Is it because they can’t afford bail, or are there other reasons why they shouldn’t be released? Are they a flight risk, potentially harmful, already been out and committed a crime and failed pretrial release,” Young said.

“We have a great number in there that maybe shouldn’t be in there.”

The issue is one the Indiana Supreme Court has already been discussing, requiring counties to create an assessment system by next year to look at which inmates can be released without paying bail. Local officials have been looking at what the assessment system should include and who should be in charge of making those decisions.

Counties could also take a look at the inmates who are waiting for their case to get through the court system and see how much time they have served, compared to what their sentence would be on the crime they have been charged with, said State Sen. Rodric Bray, a Republican who serves on Young’s committee and represents parts of Johnson County.

If an inmate already has served more time than they can be sentenced to, they could be released while waiting for their case to be resolved, Bray said.

That is just one option counties could consider, and Bray expects more proposals will surface that will come up in the 2018 legislative session, he said.

Bray does think lawmakers will discuss whether any jail inmates should be sent back to state prisons, but the lower number of offenders in prison currently is temporary. In addition to the change in where low-level felons serve their sentences, they also changed the credit time allowed for people convicted of more serious crimes so they spend more of their sentence in prison, he said. That will eventually lead to more inmates in state prisons, but on more serious charges, he said.

Local lawmakers also have other suggestions, including considering a minimum security facility that could house inmates accused of non-violent crimes, who could handle their own laundry and meals, said State Rep. Woody Burton, a Republican who represents parts of the county.

State Rep. John Young, who also represents parts of the county, wonders if the counties with overcrowded facilities could send inmates to other jails that aren’t crowded, he said.

But one key issue that is contributing to overcrowding that lawmakers are continuing to address is opiate and other drug addiction, local lawmakers said.

“The heroin epidemic has changed the landscape entirely. We have a greater amount of local incarceration due to drug abuse,” said State Sen. Greg Walker, a Republican who represents portions of Johnson County.

A new drug treatment center has opened in Marion County. Valle Vista in Greenwood was named one of five opioid addiction treatment centers in the state. And more centers are planned, Walker said.

That issue will continue to be discussed in the 2018 legislative session, with a focus on trying to steer offenders toward rehabilitation and getting people away from drugs, he said.

By the numbers

Here is a look at the number of inmates in the Johnson County jail recently, which has a maximum capacity of 322 inmates:

Sept. 28: 416

Aug. 24: 432

July 31: 382

June 30: 357

SOURCE: Johnson County Sheriff’s Office

By the numbers

Here is a look at the number of inmates reported by jails across the state in a study by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association this summer:

County;capacity;total population;percent capacity

Bartholomew;232;243;105%

Boone;219;209;95%

Brown;104;36;35%

Decatur;66;110;167%

Hamilton;412;377;92%

Hancock;157;228;145%

Hendricks;268;243;91%

Jackson;172;261;152%

Johnson;322;463;144%

Madison;207;291;141%

Marion;2,507;2,489;99%

Morgan;440;331;75%

Shelby;203;240;118%

Statewide;21,478;21,360;99%

SOURCE: Indiana Sheriff’s Association

Author photo
Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.