By MATT KOESTERS
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
A bill passed by the Indiana legislature designed to divert low-level offenders out of state prisons would increase the strain on county corrections systems if signed by Gov. Mike Pence, local officials say.
House Bill 1006 calls for changing the number of felony classifications in the state from four to six and changes the penalties for a variety of crimes, from harsher penalties for certain felony offenses to reduced penalties for drug-related crimes like marijuana possession.
The bill contains $6.4 million to help local communities absorb the extra costs associated with the new sentencing laws, but falls well short of the $30 million requested by the bill’s supporters for implementation. The bill becoming law would likely mean a reduction in state prison populations and an increase in prisoners and probationers at the county level, critics of the bill say.
“The state seems to want to solve their problems and push it back on the locals. That’s always been my experience with state government,” said Clark County Sheriff Danny Rodden. “It’s just kind of the way they deal with things. It’ll cost us more money and adversely affect our budget.”
And Clark County’s budget is already in poor shape. The county jail’s payroll line item was slashed to comply with the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance’s budget order, and the sheriff’s department is operating at a $2.7 million deficit. The county hopes to recoup some of that through the sale of items the sheriff’s department has acquired through a federal equipment haul-away program and by identifying money in abandoned funds, but Rodden’s not optimistic that the cash found will be enough. He estimates the chances of a lawsuit to mandate payment of the bills at about 60-40.
“The dominos could fall in place to help us get through, but it’s going to be awful tough,” Rodden said.
While not quite as cash-strapped as their eastern neighbors, Floyd County officials don’t like the lack of funding in the bill either.
“The burden is being placed on local governments,” said Floyd County Sheriff Darrell Mills. “It’s like when the state started forcing sex offenders to register with us. I agree with it and [it’s] something that needed to be done, but we didn’t get any extra funds for that. The burden was on us.”
In addition to rising costs, the bill will have the effect of reducing a current source of revenue, said Floyd County Commissioner Steve Bush.
“We get money now for housing federal inmates, and if more low-level offenders are put back in our jail, we will lose that money,” Bush said.
JAIL POPULATION IMPACT
Both sheriffs say their jails are already running at capacity. Mills estimates that by keeping perpetrators of crimes that are currently classified as D felonies in county jails, the impact in Floyd County would be an extra 43 prisoners per day.
“That could force the county to build a new jail,” Mills said. “I have worked diligently to keep the county from having to build a jail due to the recession and economy.”
Clark County last expanded its jail more than six years ago, at the start of Rodden’s first term. It wasn’t long ago that 486 prisoners was considered the Michael L. Becher Adult Correctional Complex’s maximum capacity. It now routinely houses more than 500 on average, Rodden said.
“We’re tight enough the way it is, and our population has grown,” Rodden said. “If we have to house more people, they’ll have to build a bigger place, because we’re already at maximum capacity.”
But not everyone shares the pessimism of the two sheriffs. Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart believes that the impact of HB 1006 on jail populations won’t be as bad as others say.
“I don’t think it’s going to greatly affect the numbers that stay here or go upstate,” Stewart said. “Overall, every prosecutor, judge, public defender or any participant in the criminal justice system has to be aware of the current population of our jail and that means that everybody we’d like to see in jail can’t be in jail, and there will be some decisions made about bail for pretrial detainees and some misdemeanor offenders, anyway.
“Some hard decisions will have to be made, short of putting them in the local jail.”
Stewart also pointed out that there is another legislative session scheduled before the bill is implemented on July 1, 2014, should it be signed by Gov. Mike Pence.
“It’s anticipated that there still be much more discussion and committee hearings,” Stewart said. “Our statewide board of directors has taken up the issue and made proposals on each of the proposals in the criminal code as it affects prosecutors.”
OTHER AFFECTED DEPARTMENTS
But the jails aren’t the only places that will feel the impact of HB 1006, officials say. Inmate populations are but one piece of the puzzle.
“I think it puts more pressure on the judges and probation officers [who already have] a large case load,” Bush said.
Clark County is barely handling that aspect as it is, Commissioner Rick Stephenson said.
“We’re looking at the majority of our budget right now going for ... housing prisoners and adjudicating their cases. Now the judges are fine because the state pays their salary,” Stephenson said. “They’re a state employee. But we still have to have all of the support staff, the office space, the furniture and all of the costs that are incurred in running the offices. Clark County cannot afford the money right now that we’re spending on the court system and the jail.”
Rodden pointed out that room for about 100 additional inmates could be made in Clark County’s jail if the county’s work-release inmates are relocated.
“But then where does the work release go?” Rodden wondered.
A jail expansion in Clark County is a nonstarter, Stephenson said, citing additional costs.
“What we’re doing right now is not even sustainable for Clark County,” Stephenson said.
Instead of staying in-house, Bush is proposing a regional solution to the potential problem.
“I think we should start the discussion of a regional jail,” Bush said. “Clark, Floyd and Harrison counties could come together and maybe build a facility that holds 1,000 inmates to help lessen the impact on each county. We are all facing overcrowding issues.”
— Assistant Editor Chris Morris and Indiana Statehouse Bureau Chief Maureen Hayden contributed to this article.