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Law change could mean more prisoners in county jail

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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 that was overcrowded most of the fall.

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 that the sheriff is concerned about.

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.

Last year, local courts sent 263 offenders convicted of Class D felonies to state prisons, but not all of those people would have remained in the county jail under the new law. For example, most of those sent to prison for low-level felonies are for probation violations, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said, which is one exception in the new law. But people who have been convicted more than once of theft, drunken driving or battery who typically are sent to prison instead would stay in Franklin, Cooper said.

On some days when the jail is full, even 10 or 15 extra people would cause overcrowding, 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. Neither Cox or Cooper expects the state will approve that money. Even if it did, the money might not cover all of the new expenses and certainly wouldn’t pay for an expansion if the jail is consistently overcrowded, Cox said.

Voters overwhelmingly voted down a jail expansion in 2010 that would have added space for 400 more beds. Since then, the jail staff, prosecutors, judges and probation and community corrections staff have worked together to use alternative sentencing, such as work release or home detention, when possible to keep the jail population down.

Last week, about 280 people were being held in the jail, which has 322 beds, Cox said. At points last year, the jail housed nearly 350 people. Overcrowding creates safety and health concerns because the jail doesn’t have enough showers or toilets, and inmates have to sleep on mattresses on the floor. When more people are crowded into cellblocks, it also raises the possibility of fights or other behavior problems, he said.

The changes in the law may help reduce inmate populations at state prisons. But the state has now pushed the problem to the counties, and Johnson County already doesn’t have room for more inmates, Cooper said.

“The state is doing this out of pure self-interest to get people out of prison and pass that burden back to the county. There were some proposals years back that Class D felons wouldn’t be put in the prisons, and there was so much outrage. Now they’ve done a little bait and switch and in that several-hundred-page document they got what they couldn’t do before,” Cooper said.

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, Cooper said.

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. Cooper said he would be hesitant to use the diversion program in felony cases because they are more severe crimes.

The partnership among judges, prosecutors, sheriff and community corrections has been effective in keeping the jail population down, but even if judges continue to sentence more people into programs such as work release, home detention or probation, some will still end up in jail. Last year about 400 people on probation violated the rules and were held at the local jail for days or weeks until a court hearing, when a judge can decide whether to send them to prison, Cox said.

“Even if a person goes on community corrections, when they misbehave and don’t follow directions, they come back to the county jail,” Cox said.

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