Porter County’s pretrial release program may be fix for jail overcrowding in other Indiana counties

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NWI.com on 10/31/2019 by Dan Carden

VALPARAISO — Porter County’s innovative pretrial release program is being held up as a potential model for all Indiana counties to follow, especially those with bulging jail populations.

On Wednesday, the Indiana Jail Overcrowding Task Force, led by Supreme Court Justice Steven David, visited the Porter County Jail and Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso to learn how the jail’s population has sunk to what Sheriff David Reynolds said is its lowest level since the jail opened in 2001.

In short, every player in the Porter County criminal justice system, from the prosecutor and public defender to the sheriff’s office and the judges, have worked together to maximize pretrial release and improve attendance for court appearances, all while preserving public safety.

At the center of the process is a 33-question, roughly 15 minute, individual assessment of each person in the jail, measuring how likely it is the person will fail to appear for their court hearings or commit another crime while awaiting trial for the alleged offense that landed them in jail in the first place.

Individuals deemed low-risk might be required to post a small bond or be released without paying anything.

Higher-risk individuals similarly might not have to put up much money, but could be ordered to participate in a drug treatment program or meet other supervisory conditions to be released — at the judge’s discretion.

Melanie Golumbeck, Porter County chief probation officer, said that’s fairer than the traditional process of releasing anyone who can raise a certain amount of money based on their alleged crime.

It also better protects the community since riskier individuals often have to attend programs or regularly check in with law enforcement, she said.

“We have to keep in mind that these are individuals that have not been convicted of any offenses,” Golumbeck said. “Should we be punishing them on the front end?

She emphasized the consequences of keeping low-risk individuals in jail for extended periods — beyond the daily housing, food and health care costs to taxpayers — include the possibility that inmates will be forced to turn to crime once they get out, since it is difficult to maintain a job, home and family while locked up.

Besides Porter County, 10 other Hoosier counties have implemented similar strategies for reducing their jail populations, including Starke and St. Joseph counties in north central Indiana.

State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, the architect of Indiana’s criminal code reforms enacted earlier this decade, said following the presentation that every county should follow the lead of Porter County to right-size their jail population and help put Hoosiers accused of crimes back on the right path.

David agreed. He said what’s going on in Porter County is “nothing short of extraordinary” by making sure individuals who can be helped are able to get help, rather than simply languishing in jail.

The task force is due to submit its recommendations for reducing jail overcrowding to the governor, chief justice and General Assembly by Dec. 1.