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Editorial: State turns overcrowded prisons into county plight

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Starting this summer, offenders convicted of crimes, such as theft or possession of narcotics, no longer will be sent to a state prison and instead will stay here in the county jail.

The state could decide to pay counties for keeping those offenders in their jails, since that will remove as many as 3,800 people from state prisons and save $12.5 million by 2020. But the extra money, if approved by a state budget committee, won’t relieve overcrowding problems in county jails, particularly here in Johnson County.

Indiana lawmakers tweaked a law overhauling the state’s criminal code, which changes how felony charges are classified and the sentences judges can impose for convictions. This creates more opportunities for alternative sentencing, such as home detention or work release programs. But the law also reduces penalties for some crimes, limits how many people can be sent to prison for low-level felony charges, such as theft, and instead keeps them in county jails.

That’s a concern for local officials, who have already watched the jail go over its maximum capacity of 322 inmates multiple days last year and who remember the overwhelming no vote from residents when the county asked four years ago to spend $23 million on a jail expansion.

The law change is expected to add inmates to the county jail, but officials don’t know exactly how many yet.

For the past 10 years, about 70 percent of the people sentenced by local courts to Indiana prisons were convicted of Class D felonies, which is the lowest level under the law. Under the law change, many of those Class D felonies are being reclassified as Level 6 felonies, and those inmates won’t always be sent to prison. Starting in July, anyone who is expected to be locked up for three months or less can’t be sent to a state prison. In July 2015, state prisons won’t accept inmates expected to stay less than a year.

On some days when the jail is full, even 10 or 15 extra people would cause overcrowding, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.

The state is deciding whether to give counties $35 per person per day to house offenders who otherwise would have gone to prison. The money would help with some of the cost for clothes, food and staff necessary to watch those people. But even if the funds are approved, Cox says the money might not cover all of the new expenses and certainly wouldn’t pay for an expansion if the jail is consistently overcrowded.

The new law allows prosecutors to offer pretrial diversion programs to more offenders as one tool to keep people out of the jail. Those programs allow people to pay a larger court fee, complete community service and other programs, such as substance abuse treatment. If the person doesn’t commit a new crime, the charge is later dismissed and doesn’t go on a person’s record.

The diversion program typically is reserved for first-time offenders and often used as a way to resolve misdemeanor cases, such as someone who is caught with marijuana. Prosecutor Brad Cooper said he would be hesitant to use the diversion program in felony cases because they are more severe crimes.

However, if people in community corrections misbehave and don’t follow directions, they come back to the county jail, exacerbating the overcrowding condition.

The changes enacted by the legislature are an unfunded mandate. They shift responsibility for housing inmates to counties without giving them the necessary resources. In effect, lawmakers solved the state’s prison population problem by making it the counties’ problem.

The General Assembly needs to revisit this issue and give counties the money they need to truly handle what is really a state matter.

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