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Solid police work, less leniency by courts behind prison population

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Inmates wait to be strip-searched Wednesday at the Indiana Department of Correction Reception Diagnostic Center in Plainfield.
Inmates wait to be strip-searched Wednesday at the Indiana Department of Correction Reception Diagnostic Center in Plainfield. PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON

For the past five years, Johnson County has sent more convicted criminals to prison than most other counties across the state.

Every year, local courts sentence more than 300 people to prison time. That puts Johnson County in the top 10 counties in the state for the number of people sent to prison each year, according to statistics from the Indiana Department of Correction.

Since 2007, the county has ranked between fifth and ninth in the state. With the 11th-largest population in Indiana, that has meant the county has sent more people to prison than many other counties of a similar or larger size.

Local officials said Johnson County remains high on the list due to partnerships between local police and prosecutors that make criminal cases stronger, police departments focusing on specific crimes, such as drugs, and the tendency of many local judges to send probation violators straight to prison.

The numbers tracked by the Indiana Department of Correction are used by the public and state and local officials to gauge where each county stands compared with others, said Douglas Garrison, spokesman for the state department of correction.

The state also can use those numbers to work with counties and make sure that each person they send to prison should actually be there, he said. For example, the state’s position is that first-time low-level felony offenders often don’t need to be in prison, so state officials can track how often counties sentence them to prison and then work with officials to develop and consider other options for offenders, such as work release or drug treatment, he said.

Counties also can use the numbers to plan for the future, such as if they are building a jail expansion and would want to make room for more low-level felony offenders, Garrison said.

State officials have discussed the possibility of requiring counties to keep the lowest-level felony offenders, rather than sending them to prison, which is becoming more common in states across the country.

That could mean those offenders go to a work release program, home detention or the county jail, Garrison said.

That makes Johnson County’s higher numbers a concern to Sheriff Doug Cox, who said he could not make room in the jail for an additional 200 or more inmates per year that typically are sent to prison for low-level felonies.

Suspects who are charged with shoplifting, possession of a controlled substance or a second case of driving under the influence of alcohol typically are convicted of a lower-level felony.

Local law enforcement officials were surprised by the county’s No. 9 ranking last year and said each sentence is decided based on a specific case and offender.

When someone is convicted of a crime, the sentence is based upon what the law allows for the crime committed and the specific case, such as criminal history and the circumstances of the crime, Johnson Superior Court 3 Judge Lance Hamner said.

The ultimate goal of a sentence is to protect the public and change the person who committed the crime, he said.

“There really is no magic formula,” Hamner said.

But local law enforcement officials said certain factors likely weigh into the county’s higher than average rate for sending offenders to prison.

One factor could be that local judges are more likely to send someone who violates probation to prison than other counties, which may allow people to violate their probation multiple times before sending them to prison, Johnson Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.

For example, people who commit a low-level felony, such as possessing drugs, could be sentenced to probation and avoid prison time. But if they violate their probation, such as by being arrested again, he typically sends them to prison, Loyd said.

“My philosophical position is you’ve already violated the law, you’ve been given somewhat of a second chance. I’m not too big on third, fourth and fifth chances,” he said.

In other counties, especially in larger counties like Marion County, judges there have a tendency to not send someone to prison until they have violated their probation multiple times, Loyd said.

He believes as a judge it is important to be consistent. And with the current caseloads in the county, no judge has time to sort through every fact in the history of every case when a person violates probation.

So that likely leads to more judges deciding that each probation violation deserves prison time, rather than deciding a case may be less serious than another and not send the offender to prison, Loyd said.

“I don’t know that sends out the correct signal to the people participating, that you can violate a little bit,” Loyd said.

Having judges with a history of sentencing people to prison also helps the prosecutor’s office, even when negotiating with a suspect to plead guilty, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

Prosecutors can tell the offender they are facing a likely prison term if they go to trial and lose and sometimes persuade that person to plead guilty, saving the county the expense and time of many trials, Cooper said.

Drug use in the county also affected the numbers in recent years, along with a subsequent focus on drug investigations by police, he said.

But Cooper believes one of the biggest factors that leads to more prison sentences is stronger criminal cases. That is partly achieved in Johnson County by having prosecutors work with police early on in cases, he said.

A deputy prosecutor is on-call every night and weekend and often is called out to a crime scene to work with police investigators collecting evidence. Having a prosecutor there helps ensure everything collected can be used at trial, he said.

“If we get prosecutors into a case early on, we can make sure we get good evidence, good information for a case later,” Cooper said.

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