Courier & Press by John T. Martin
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Vanderburgh County Council was handed jail expansion alternatives about four months ago, and it’s time for the council to act, County Commissioners President Jeff Hatfield said.
Hatfield delivered a letter to councilors Friday saying the county must address its “critically overcrowded” jail. The jail on Harlan Avenue operates above capacity, with overflow inmates held in other counties at local taxpayer expense.
Hatfield’s letter reads:
“The Board of Commissioners was tasked with bringing options for the council to consider and vote on to address the growing problem. We accomplished this and presented the findings in November 2019.
“The extensive research and studies show that the current conditions are unacceptable to the health, welfare and safety of our county employees and members of the Sheriff’s Department working at the jail, as well as the detainees secured there. The analysis also indicate that continuing the status quo comes with a prices to the taxpayer, as the cost of housing Vanderburgh County detainees out-of-county is expected to rise and require more funds from future budgets and the general fund. No solution can be accomplished without funding by the council. I respectfully request that you schedule a vote on the options that were presented to the council in November 2019, at your earliest possible opportunity.”
Vanderburgh County’s consultants on the jail expansion recommended a $89.1-million, 764-bed addition, which they said would meet the county’s needs for 20 years or so. It was the largest expansion possibility the consultant presented.
It would build two pods with dormitory-style housing, a high-security pod and a juvenile pod, and it would enable Vanderburgh County to house more than 200 federal inmates immediately upon opening. The county currently houses no federal inmates.
It also would allow jail staff to properly group inmates according to their offenses and their needs, an issue of concern in the current jail, according to the consultants.
Some of the council, however, have said the most expensive jail expansion alternatives can’t be afforded.
Consultants told county officials a funding mechanism for any jail expansion would likely be an income tax called the Correctional Facility Tax. In Indiana, 21 counties including Gibson and Dubois already charge it, and all but two counties do so at the maximum rate, 0.20 percent.
On an income of $50,000, the tax at maximum rate would mean an extra $100 per year.
Leaders of the County Council have said they want to hear from the public on the jail issue, but they haven’t decided whether to hold forums out in the community or invite citizens to come to a council meeting and speak.
Council President Tom Shetler Jr. said some of his colleagues have requested more information from the consultants about alternatives that were presented, and funding sources for them.
Shetler said none of the financing scenarios “are terribly attractive, but doing nothing is not an alternative either.”
He said councilors want to meet the county’s incarceration needs but keep the public cost down as much as possible.
Consultants on the project will have meetings next with councilors to discuss details of the available options, Shetler said.
Hatfield noted Vanderburgh County was told in October 2017 by the Indiana Department of Correction that its jail was in noncompliance with state statues due to its excessive crowding.
Vanderburgh County at that time was given 180 days “to develop a plan of action to become compliant,” according to a letter from the Department of Correction to county commissioners.
Sheriff Dave Wedding said he will support the scheduling of public forums on the jail project, if county councilors decide to do that.
However, Wedding said he agrees with Hatfield that the county must move forward on an expansion. The jail can hold about 550 people, but even at slower times, about 200 inmates from Vanderburgh are housed in outlying Tri-State counties.
“I think they are just trying to figure out how much money to spend,” Wedding said. “I think they realize we have to have a jail.”