Incarceration in Indiana is a problem, a big problem.

The consequences are dire. The taxpayers are on the hook for lawsuits if our leaders neglect their responsibilities, and we will foot the bill for blown-out-of-proportion projects. That’s why it’s important that we understand this problem and lobby our leaders to take action in some way to stem the tide.

A majority of jails in rural Indiana are at or over capacity. According to a Department of Correction report published in 2017, 59 of Indiana’s 92 counties are at the overcrowded threshold.

Grant, Huntington and Wabash counties are all trying to find a way to deal with the lack of space in their jails – some more urgently than other.

All the while, our local leaders are also trying to navigate the state’s role in this whole debacle.

Although jail overcrowding was an issue before 2015, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill that year that made this situation even more complicated.

Level 6 felons used to be housed in state prisons, but in order to close down one of our state prisons – and probably save money – our state legislators passed legislation that forced counties to take these Level 6 felony offenders.

Our county jails weren’t built to house felons. They were built to house people awaiting trials or serving sentences for misdemeanor charges.

Level 6 felonies carry anywhere between half a year to two and a half years in jail. The harshest misdemeanor carries up to one year in jail.

On top of that, many of these Level 6 felons need substance abuse treatment, something they could have gotten in prison but have a hard time receiving locally.

Now, our local communities are forced to either arrest and prosecute less people or fork up the cash to fund bigger jails.

Right now, each community in our region is taking a different approach.

Huntington County officials created an income tax to generate $1.5 million annually to help fund an expansion project. They have plans to build a project in the ballpark of $15 million, which will more than double the capacity of the jail.

Wabash County failed to respond to complaints and are now facing a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Grant County officials are working on renovating the D-Home to house juveniles and female inmates, but these projects likely won’t fix the county’s larger jail overcrowding issues.

Huntington County’s approach is a bit too haphazard to be fiscally responsible, but at least they are doing something proactive instead of being reactive.

Wabash County’s situation looks grim. Their reactive approach could be costly, both fiscally and socially.

Grant County’s plan seems to be somewhere in the middle, but the following argument holds true for all public officials.

Jail overcrowding can be fixed in multiple ways. You can take a community corrections approach, or you can take the construction approach.

Taking a “no new taxes” approach might help officials win reelection, but it’s not a long-term solution. It could also backfire terribly with allegations of negligence to follow.

The right way to fix this issue is to be vocal.

Our public officials too often make brash decisions instead of having frank conversations with the public at the table.

While nobody likes new taxes, people are also reasonable. When the public is faced with a choice – either let criminals run free or pay a few extra dollars to fund a jail expansion – they will probably choose the latter.

However, it is important that our leaders consider alternative sentencing as a way to stem jail overcrowding. Prosecutors could push for convicting people of non-violent crimes but advocate for no jail time. Judges could opt to use probation for reasonable cases.

All of these options cost money, but it’s better to talk about ways to handle an expense before it becomes a mandate, or worse.
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