News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

December 20, 2011

Working alternatives: Communities look at new ways to stop revolving door of prison

TERRE HAUTE — A second arrest for driving while intoxicated landed Wimberly Tyler in the Vigo County jail last September, looking at a Class D felony charge and up to three years behind bars.

But rather than being just another warm body warehoused in state prison at taxpayers’ expense, Tyler is working and paying for his own incarceration. He has been assigned to the work-release program through Vigo County Community Corrections, and he holds a 30- to 40-hour a week job at a local restaurant in Terre Haute.

“It’s given me a chance to save up money and get back into the community,” Tyler said of his pre-trial placement in the program. “It’s a lot better than going to prison.”

Community corrections is a broad term for the local corrections/criminal justice system that provides effective alternatives to imprisonment at the state level.

Local programs are operated as independent county agencies — some housed in a facility separate from the county jail, others operated on contract with local office oversight.

The Indiana Department of Correction encourages counties to initiate their own programs, and offers grant funding to keep the costs off local taxpayers. While 78 of Indiana’s 92 counties now have some form of community corrections, another five counties are talking to the DOC about setting up a local program, according to Mike Lloyd, director of the DOC’s community corrections and community transition programs.

“It’s just good common sense,” Lloyd said of having monitored, rehabilitative incarceration in the communities where offenders live. “It doesn’t serve the taxpayers any purpose to put low-level offenders into a DOC facility where there’s no opportunity to get support or treatment.”

Shifting focus

The dynamics of a state prison sentence versus local incarceration placement is layered by many considerations, not the least of which is a prison system crowded with D felony offenders.

In smaller counties such as Putnam, which does not have a jail overcrowding issue, community corrections is used by the justice system as an appropriate way to monitor offenders.

Putnam County uses electronic monitoring, or “ankle bracelets,” to keep tabs on its pre-trial defendants or convicted offenders through either radio frequencies or more enhanced GPS tracking. The fees paid are on a sliding scale based on income. The system also has in-home alcohol monitoring with facial recognition technology to make sure participants are obeying the rules of the program.

Class D felons are part of the target population for community corrections, said Jamie France, director of the Putnam County program, which averages around 50 participants at a time. France said he agrees with corrections experts that rehabilitating defendants’ behavior in their own community is more successful than sending a person off to prison for a short sentence. Putnam County sent 74 D felons to the DOC during a 12-month period ending in August, slightly more than Vigo’s 70 admissions.

Hamilton County, north of metropolitan Indianapolis, sent 388 Class D felons to a state prison during that same time frame, ranking it fourth behind Marion, Allen and Vanderburgh counties for D felony prison admissions.

Ralph Watson, head of the Hamilton County Community Corrections program, said many of his county’s D felons already have failed in community-based programs, so the last option is to send those people to a state prison.

Hamilton County has some unique challenges related to criminal sentencing, according to Watson. Major roadways that criss-cross the county and Hamilton’s destination sites attract people — including some who commit crimes — from around the state and the Midwest. When arrests are made, some defendants have no ties to the community, making participation in a local corrections program problematic.

“A percentage of those individuals have criminal activity,” Watson said of passers-through, “and it is a challenge to serve them if they live elsewhere.”

 

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