David Powell

David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Several entities representing Indiana’s core criminal justice initiatives met with the Senate Courts and Criminal Law Committee Tuesday, where the group assessed the achievements and failures of recent prison reform efforts by the state.

Namely, the committee called on these groups, including the Indiana Sheriffs Association, the Indiana Department of Correction, the Public Defender Council and others, to analyze the effects of two monumental prison reform proposals.

First, in 2013, lawmakers enacted House Enrolled Act 1006, authored by Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, as the first major change to state criminal code in three decades. It separated murder into its own crime class and expanded felony classifications into six categories.

In 2015, Steuerwald again authored a separate House Enrolled Act 1006 to allow for several new changes to criminal code. The proposal included a new rule stating that persons convicted of a Level 6 felony could no longer be sent to the Indiana Department of Correction and established new funding options for mental health and addiction services, among other changes.

While criminal justice leaders have praised aspects of these laws for expanding mental health services and rehabilitation funding, specifically for the drug addicted, they haven’t escaped controversy.

The Vera Institute, an independent research group that assesses state justice systems nationwide, reported that Indiana was the only state in the last 15 years to see a jail population growth of 32 percent or more in a two-year period (2016-2017). This growth, according to the institute, occurred shortly after former Gov. Mike Pence signed the 2015 HB 1006 into law.

The institute’s report lists 64 of Indiana’s 92 county jails as overcrowded.

In essence, this demonstrated spike in prison populations overrides a key mission of these reforms: to reduce the number of people in jail through well-crafted intervention efforts.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, represented at the hearing by Executive Director David Powell, noted several changes in jail recidivism rates and population growth.

The DOC’s population stands at 46,903 people, including Level 6 felons in county jails and community programs. This represents an 11 percent increase in growth experience from 2015 to 2018.

All of these changes are emerging, Powell said, as four counties are building new lockups in response to jail overcrowding. This is no easy task, the director added, because across eight existing county jails local communities are paying upwards of $785.5 million, or an average of $145,000 per prison bed.

An additional 32 counties are also considering proposals to construct new jails. Conservative estimates project the statewide cost at $1.5 billion, according to the Indiana Sheriffs Association, or an average of $30 million spent per county.

“Can local property taxes sustain that and continue to support schools and infrastructure?” Powell asked the committee. “That’s a big question.”

Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds, speaking alongside his colleagues in the Indiana Sheriffs Association, said the state must address jail overcrowding and related issues on a case-by-case basis if lawmakers want to ensure long-lasting change.

But Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding, also speaking with the sheriffs’ association, said his county jail population is already well over capacity.

The sheriff noted that overcrowded jails are nothing new, speaking from early experience as a jailer in 1981 when he was 21years old. At the time, he said, Vanderburgh County’s average inmate population totaled at 826 people.

The Vanderburgh County jail reaches capacity at 550 people, though Wedding said it is ideal to have no more than 500 inmates. However, the county is currently tasked with supporting 688 inmates.

Wedding said, overall, he supported the initial mission of the reforms, though no law can root out the negative aspects of human behavior that ultimately drive crime.

“When we enacted 1006, you didn’t give us the tools to fix criminals,” he said. “Jails are warehouses.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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