Marion County Jail still overcrowded, despite $800,000 in new funds

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Indy Star on 7/28/16 by Madeline Buckley

marion county jail

While the Marion County Jail continues to battle overcrowding, Indianapolis and county officials have begun distributing state grant money to help counties handle an influx of inmates resulting from criminal justice reforms.

The City-County Council at its meeting earlier this month approved nearly $800,000  from the Indiana Department of Correction for programs that would treat low-level offenders struggling with addictions and mental health problems to keep them out of prison. It’s part of a series of laws passed in 2014 that seek to treat nonviolent offenders, rather than incarcerate them.

But the goal of rehabilitation, at the heart of the programs the grant money will fund, could take years to achieve.

And the overcrowding at the Marion County Jail is showing no sign of letting up since the sheriff’s office in May appealed to the city for help, classifying the jail as in “crisis mode.”

In a presentation prepared for the City-County Council’s public safety committee meeting, slated for Wednesday evening, Col. Louis Dezelan of the Marion County sheriff’s office highlighted a new jail as a department goal, noting problems with capacity and inefficiency among the three jail facilities. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has designated a task force to examine the matter.

Dezelan said Marion County houses 136 inmates in jails in other counties in order to keep its own jail population below the capacity of 2,507.

The cost is $40 per inmate per day, not including transportation between Indianapolis and Elkhart, where most of the inmates are housed. Dezelan told IndyStar that Elkhart County has informed the sheriff’s office that it can’t take more than 150 inmates, meaning the county must find new accommodations if the jail population continues to surge.

“We are very concerned about what will happen in the future,” Dezelan said.

Yet some officials are hopeful that the grant money trickling down to Marion County offers a long-term solution that can help keep low-level, repeat offenders out of jail entirely.

Among the grant money distributed so far:

  • $595,935 will go to Marion Superior Court for a program aimed at helping offenders struggling with heroin and alcohol addictions.
  • $135,600 is earmarked for the Marion County sheriff’s office for mental health treatment in the jails.
  • $55,757 iwill go to the Marion County Public Defender Agency to hire attorneys to work in the county’s mental health court.

The funds come from a larger pot of nearly $7.5 million granted to Marion County from the state to introduce programs that would rehabilitate low-level offenders, keeping them out of jail.

The money is meant to help the county tackle jail overcrowding by offering alternative programs that treat the root causes of crime, such as drug addiction and mental illness.

The county plans to use the nearly $600,000 grant to treat heroin addicts who are repeat offenders with programs that include counseling, medication and supervision, said Christine Kerl, chief probation officer in Marion County.

“We’re hoping … the long-term impact is that they don’t even come back (to jail),” Kerl said.

In the jail, Dezelan said, the grant money will go toward creating three new social worker positions to work with inmates who are mentally ill, about 40 percent of the county’s inmate population.

“In many cases, we release them, and they go right back through the system,” Dezelan told IndyStar. “We hope these three caseworker positions help break that cycle.”

Still, there’s nearly two months remaining in the summer, when the jail population tends to surge, Dezelan noted, and the crowding problems have yet to ease.