The three candidates vying to get the Republican nomination for sheriff differ on whether a jail expansion is needed and, if one is built, how it should be paid for.
All three men listed jail overcrowding as one of the top three issues facing the county.
The Johnson County jail consistently has been overcrowded for months, reaching 400 or more inmates, significantly above the maximum capacity of 322. The state put the county on notice that something must be done to address the crowded conditions, and is expecting a plan in the coming months.
Local officials have been meeting for months to discuss potential solutions to the crowded conditions, including remodeling the jail, expanding it or growing other programs that inmates could be sent to instead. Another key discussion is how to pay for it.
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All three Republican candidates for sheriff, Duane Burgess, Kirby Cochran and Stoney Vann, said something needs to be done, but they don’t agree on exactly what.
Cochran, who works as a detective for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, wants to look to other options before asking taxpayers to spend millions on a jail expansion. He would like to first explore the Johnson County Community Corrections program, which oversees the home detention and work release programs.
That program can help address the issues that are leading people to be arrested, to try to address the overcrowding situation long-term, Cochran said.
He wants to examine what ways the county legal system could work faster so that people held at the jail could become part of community corrections programs, and as sheriff would work with the director of community corrections. He wants to explore those options before asking taxpayers for a $14 to $20 million jail expansion, he said.
Long term, Cochran wants to add programming inside the jail to address drug addiction and mental health issues so that the same people aren’t repeatedly arrested. His background in law enforcement includes managing two correctional facilities.
“If we do not treat these folks while we have hands on them, we are going to continue to build jails, hire police officers, hire jailers, and we won’t get the issues resolved,” Cochran said.
The county community corrections program does have some space, but not much without its own expansion, director Jason Cranney said.
Currently, the home detention program, which uses tracking devices to monitor offenders to be sure they are where they are supposed to be, is full and all devices have been assigned. That program could be expanded by buying more equipment, but that could be costly, Cranney said.
The program’s facility, located on Hospital Road next to the jail, is typically full for female offenders, with a capacity of 12. The facility has room for a maximum of 85 male offenders but doesn’t usually take more than 80 for security and safety reasons, he said. As of this week, about 65 male offenders were in the facility. But officials are cautious about taking in too many offenders, especially ones with violent offenses, because of the open layout of the building that leads to some safety and security concerns, Cranney said.
The county had been discussing building a new facility for the program, with more space for offenders, allowing people to be separated more based on offenses, and more room for classes that focus on addiction and mental health issues that are common for offenders. But that plan has been put on hold while the county tries to deal with the overcrowding at the jail, Cranney said.
Vann, a retired Indiana State Police officer, would also like to use the community corrections program to help with crowding at the jail, but also believes community corrections should be expanded. How much it should be expanded is debatable, he said.
He said that historically the jail has needed to be expanded every 20 years, and that the data shows that a 1,000-bed jail would be adequate for the county for the next 20 years. Instead of such a massive project, he instead proposes an initial expansion of 128 beds to bring the capacity at the jail to 450.
He favors coupling that expansion with moving inmates to a larger community correction program and adding programs and treatments to reduce recidivism to address the overcrowding.
“The temporary fix also holds the sheriff’s and county officials’ feet to the fire,” Vann said. “If you build a 1,000-bed jail, then as sheriff, I no longer have to be concerned about jail overcrowding.”
But a smaller expansion will force the sheriff to add programming to reduce recidivism and try other options, and retain local control rather than being forced into a massive expansion due to a lawsuit.
Burgess, who is serving as the jail commander, has been working with local officials on the crowding issue for months and said an expansion to the jail is absolutely necessary.
“The jail needs to expand, remodeling it won’t do anything, it won’t add bed space,” Burgess said.
Ideally, an expansion would include space for classes and programs, but also has enough space for inmates and correctional officers to be safe, with room to process inmates coming into the facility and to house them separately based on the crimes they are accused of, he said.
“We need a workable expansion, not a Taj Mahal, something where we can safely house inmates, from misdemeanors to homicides. We need a facility that allows us to do our job,” Burgess said.
Under state law, the county can borrow up to $15 million before the project would need to go to a public vote, and that is the idea county officials have been discussing after the last jail referendum in 2010. Voters turned down a $23 million proposal to add 400 beds in a two-story tower by a 2-to-1 margin, he said.
The committee researching ideas has looked at multiple options for funding the expansion, including grants, but the majority of counties across the state are also facing overcrowding conditions in their jails, so any of that funding would be hard to get, he said.
“In order for people to be safe, taxpayers have to foot the bill to ensure safety,” Burgess said.
Cochran said asking for taxpayers to pay millions for a jail expansion is a last resort. He wants the county to form partnerships with area mental health providers, seek grants for treatment and services and bring in mental health experts who can work with offenders on the issues that are leading them to commit crimes to impact families and break cycles of crime.
“I would like to see us a little less in front of the taxpayers asking for dollars,” Cochran said.
Safety of the residents would always be the top priority, he said.
“We just can’t have folks out who need to be incarcerated,” he said.
He said the county has been too slow to deal with the overcrowding at the jail.
“If we’re going to build a jail, we need to build a jail that is going to sufficiently provide housing for a long term, not just four to eight years to leave a problem for the next sheriff to deal with.”
Vann said the county needs to take action to keep local control of the scope and timing of a jail expansion project.
“Our fate is in our own hands to prevent that from happening,” he said.
He would also ask state legislators for a tweak to the state law that requires the lowest-level felons to be housed at the county jail. He proposes a change that would allow counties to send those felons to state prison if the county jail has been over-capacity for a certain amount of time.
Johnson County Sheriff
Term: 4 years
Duties: Oversees Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson County jail and courthouse security program with a total budget of $9.3 million and 150 employees.
Name: Duane Burgess
Family: Wife, Dee Ann
Occupation: Johnson County jail commander
Educational background: Center Grove High School graduate; graduated from Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, Indiana Law Enforcement Academy Chief School and FBI National Academy
Political experience: None
Memberships: Indiana Sheriff’s Association, Master Mason – Union Village Lodge #545, Murat Shrine – Indianapolis, Johnson County Shrine Club (past president 2012), Johnson County Mini Mystics, Murat Shrine Fireman’s Club, Murat Shrine Police Club, and Fraternal Order of Police – Johnson County Lodge #154.
Name: Kirby Cochran
Family: Wife, Lori, and two grown children, plus one daughter who lives at home
Occupation: Detective at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office
Educational background: Graduate of Franklin Community High School, Indiana Law Enforcement Academy and the academy’s jail officer school and Indiana Department of Correction Field Officer Training Academy. Also studied criminal justice at Kaplan College.
Political experience: Precinct committeeman
Memberships: Founder and president of Friends for Life, member of Fraternal Order of Police #154, Emmanuel Church, Indiana Sheriff’s Association, KIC-IT, Johnson County Sheriff’s Ride, Franklin Rotary Club, Indiana Association of Hostage/Crisis Negotiators, advocate and volunteer for the Indiana Donor Network.
Name: William Stoney Vann
Family: Wife Veneda and five children
Occupation: Retired in February after 29 years as a trooper with the Indiana State Police
Educational background: Graduate of Emmerich Manuel High School and University of Indianapolis
Political experience: None
Memberships: Indiana State Police Alliance Pioneers, Indiana Sheriff’s Association, American Legion Post 252, FBI National Academy
Here is a look at the Johnson County jail and past proposals to expand or add more beds:
1978: Original jail built to house 104 inmates.
1997: A class-action lawsuit filed by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in 1997 alleged that the overcrowded conditions, with the jail housing twice its capacity, violated inmates’ constitutional rights.
2001: A $9.5 million expansion added 150 beds, bringing the maximum capacity to 317 inmates.
2010: Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $23 million expansion that would have added 200 beds to the jail.
2017: The county was put on notice by the state that officials had to come up with a solution to the overcrowding problem at the jail, which has routinely been housing 400 inmates or more — significantly over the maximum capacity of 322.
Find out where they stand: