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Courier & Press on 12/1/2019 by John T. Martin
EVANSVILLE, Ind. –- Vanderburgh County government officials face a list of difficult questions this week as they dive back into jail expansion discussions.
How many more jail beds does the county need? How many might be required in 10 years, 20 years? What can taxpayers reasonably afford? Could temporary structures become part of the solution? What about federal inmates?
The county’s consultants on the jail issue, American Structurepoint and Rosser International, will show a list of alternatives during Wednesday’s County Council meeting.
Councilors expect to spend weeks if not months vetting those options. They said public input will be part of the process.
The consultants “are going to show what they have put together to date,” said Joe Kiefer, president of the council. “They will say, here’s the analysis based on cost, how many beds can be built, certain restrictions and rules.”
The jail on Harlan Avenue is above capacity on a regular basis.
Built to house 512 inmates, the jail as of Nov. 22 had 563 under roof. Due to the lack of room, another 197 people were incarcerated in surrounding counties, at local taxpayer cost.
The jail opened in January 2006, and it was filled soon after that. Its construction budget was $35 million. The county still pays annual debt on the building.
If previous meetings are any indication, consultants this week will present options for 500, 600 and 750 additional jail beds and attach costs to each of those.
The 750-bed alternative is to meet Vanderburgh County’s needs for 20 years or so, consultants have said previously. They have said 600 more beds would buy about 10 years, at current trends, while a 500-bed addition would fill up much sooner.
The use of temporary structures, also known as “sprung” structures, might become part of the conversation as well.
Those structures could house either jail inmates or the county’s work release program. Some in county government view this as a less costly option than building new, permanent jail beds, although there are questions about how it would work.
“It’s worth looking at,” Kiefer said.
The County Council is the fiscal arm of county government. It has seven members, but at least one — Finance Chairman James Raben — is unequivocal in saying funds are unavailable for the most expensive choices on the table.
“We’re only going to get what we can afford,” Raben said.
Kiefer said standing pat also comes with a cost, because it would mean Vanderburgh would have to keep transporting dozens of inmates to other jails in nearby Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois communities.
“If we do nothing and say we’re going to leave things as they are, we’ll still be underwater in terms of what we have to spend,” Kiefer said. “No matter what we do, it’s going to cost us more money. It’s just a question of how we want to handle this. It’s going to be expensive, no matter what direction we go in.”
Housing federal inmates would bring Vanderburgh County reimbursements, and during a County Council meeting earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Richard Young said those inmates would be available. Many from Southern Indiana are now housed in Henderson County, Kentucky.
Councilors, though, have seemed reluctant to embrace federal inmates, saying reimbursements would not be a reliable revenue source.
There are voices in Evansville calling for bond reform and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation programs as approaches to jail overcrowding, as opposed to constructing a few hundred more beds.
“Sometimes people don’t need a hand out, they need a hand up,” said the Rev. William Payne, a community activist. “When they are in jail, they lose their job, which forces them to fall behind on bills, CPS gets involved, and they are incarcerated for … a nonviolent offense. Some of these offenses need to be looked at. We need rehabilitation, and we need to revisit giving the judges a little more leeway.”
The Courier & Press in September took a one-day snapshot of jail population and what inmates were housed for. On a day when 833 were in custody, 135 were there for drug-related offenses, including 97 for possession.
People in jail for possessing marijuana are often out on bond in less than 24 hours, officials with the sheriff’s office said.
The investigation showed 99 were jailed on a petition to revoke probation, which a judges issues if a person violates terms of probation.
Most inmates, 62 percent, were in jail for felony charges, including 10 for murder.
“If you follow the news, you see people every day we have quite a bit of crime, serious crime, that leads to people being incarcerated in my jail,” Sheriff Dave Wedding said. “I get a little tired of people telling me we are over-incarcerated. That’s not the case. It’s our job to take people off the street who need to be in jail.”
In advance of this week’s County Council meeting, Wedding said he has traveled Indiana looking at jail projects that might be possibilities for Vanderburgh.
Wedding is outspoken about how the General Assembly’s decision to shift low-level felons out of state prisons and into county jails has worsened the crowding problem in many Indiana communities.
“I want to make sure we don’t under-build,” Wedding said. “I certainly don’t want to under-build and have the next sheriff come in and have to worry about building a jail. I would like to build for today and 10-20 years down the road.”
County government officials said they will strive to balance the county’s need against tax impacts of different alternatives, and they promised you’ll have opportunities to voice your opinion.
“I’ll recommend that anything we do will involve some public hearings,” Kiefer said. “Hearings that are just on this topic and not part of a regular council meeting.”