Releasing a person pretrial could be one method to reduce the future population for the Vigo County Jail.

That was one idea from Mel Burks, CEO of Hamilton Center Inc., who said his agency for the past two years has been ready to move forward on an assessment center. Such a center would be aimed at assessing individuals for mental and drug programs through Hamilton Center instead of immediately sending them to jail.

Burks said Hamilton Center “is willing and ready to assist with those individuals with an assessment center. We are prepared to put all our energy into providing a place where those individuals can come and be assessed before going to jail. The assessment may rightfully direct those individuals somewhere else instead of the jail,” Burks recently told the Vigo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, of which he is a member.

The issues at hand

Burks was offering one suggestion to the 30-member advisory committee that was formed as citizen groups and different parts of government — including the judiciary — reacted to the county’s plans to build a $60-million, 500-bed jail.

That the county needs a new jail is in little dispute. The county essentially conceded in a still-pending federal lawsuit that its current jail cannot keep pace and provide incarceration that doesn’t violate constitutional standards.

One problem becoming clear to the committee itself is that there is no single question and no single answer when it comes to reducing the number of people locked up, as well as determining exactly which suspects and offenders need to be locked up.

And the numbers do appear sizable in Vigo County.

The Vera Institute, a national non-profit that studies incarceration issues, said that on April 20, the Vigo County jail had a population of 291, a roughly 278 percent increase in jail population from just 30 years ago. The rate of incarceration has also increased by approximately 275 percent in that same span, or about 426 people in jail per 100,000 working-age people in the county.

A county jail status report Vigo County filed in U.S. District Southern Indiana at the end of April shows 280 of 309 inmates at the county jail were pretrial detainees.

The Vigo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee was formed in November to take a wide-scope look at the county’s criminal justice system. It began meeting in earnest in February.

Public opinion

The chairman of the committee said more discussion and community education are needed.

Rob Roberts, Vigo County’s chief deputy prosecutor, said one key issue will be the implementation of Rule 26, a bail reform program that would see more low-risk arrestees released without bond. It would allow release of those arrested without bail as long as a judge determines there is no substantial risk of flight or danger to themselves or others.

The Indiana Supreme Court adopted the rule in September 2016. Currently, 11 counties are participating in a pilot program to implement the pretrial practices. The high court in 2017 amended its effective date statewide to January 2020.

“It is a default position that people are to be released pretrial,” Roberts said.

And that can get tricky in terms of public opinion very quickly, Roberts pointed out.

“In setting that type of thing up, if you look at a sampling of comments that people have on social media regarding cases where somebody is either released from jail on a child molestation case or put on home detention from a reckless homicide case ... where someone may ultimately be found to be a low risk to re-offend, or low risk to fail to appear, or a low risk to the community based on how the pretrial screening tool assesses that person, [then] they get released,” Roberts said in an interview.

“That is not what people expect on these types of crimes,” Roberts said.

Somehow, Roberts said, authorities must make it clear both that they are following the law and the current pretrial screening measures do actually — statistically work well.

“But it means that our county will be handling cases potentially much differently than the past and people could get out of jail” that previously were detained in jail.

“I think that’s going to be controversial, or there will be quite a few outspoken opinions on that as we move forward,” Roberts said.

Jasmine Heiss of the Vera Institute said more information on changing pretrial incarceration may be on the horizon.

The state of New York has recently enacted statewide pretrial reform that “does not use a risk assessment instrument at all, but instead has created a stronger presumption of release, in some cases a mandated release for low level offenders, all misdemeanors, some low level felonies and the preservation of monetary bail for more serious felonies with specific fact findings on the public safety risk,” she said.

That is projected to decrease smaller-county jail populations by 50 to 60 percent, she said.

While Indiana already has Rule 26 in place, Hess said, New York is a new model and the country will see how that plays out over the next few years.

Impact of state decisions

In 2013, House Enrolled Act 1006 became the first major change to Indiana’s criminal code in about three decades. That act separated murder into its own crime class and expanded felony classifications into six categories.

In 2015, additional changes to the criminal code took effect, including sending Level 6 felonies to county jails instead of state prisons. It also removed a “two for one” in which a person could have two days removed for each single day served without incident.

“In 2018, Indiana added the second largest number of people to its prison population of any state in the country, second only to Texas,” Heiss said. “When lowering penalties or eliminating some mandatory minimum [sentences] are paired with increasing sentence lengths,” the impact is more people in jail, especially at the county level, she said.

Heiss said she thinks Indiana’s criminal code of “moving people from state custody to local custody was supposed to be moving people closer to treatment and giving them access to community-based resources, but if those things simply have not been invested in at the community level, then all that you have done is give sheriffs more people to house in their facilities,” Hess said.

Bill Watson, executive director of Vigo County Community Corrections, said there are changes in the recent legislative session where some Level 6 offenders can go to state prison. That includes violent offenders or those with two prior unrelated felony convictions.

Hess said she thinks Indiana needs to make more financial investments in programs to keep people out of incarceration.

Roberts said he thinks the “theory [of state criminal code reform] was to reduce the prison population and invest that savings [in state expenses] through a newly created [state] Recovery Works program. Serving those offenders, you would be able to better develop programming,” he said.

“But what has happened, in my interpretation, is they [Indiana legislature] didn’t really fully understand that they were looking at the top of the iceberg and not the full iceberg underneath. The money was drying up so fast, there are caps now on what a person can have for treatment programming,” Roberts said.

Hamilton Center and the Next Step Foundation, Roberts said, are the only certified programs in Vigo County for the state’s Recovery Works program, designed to provide support services to those without insurance coverage who are involved with the criminal justice system. The program is targeted to increase the availability of specialized mental health treatment and recovery services in the community for those who may otherwise face incarceration.

Next Step is a community funded faith-based program that consists of a 90-day residential program comprised of daily 12-Step meetings and weekly classes to help people overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Indiana’s, Terre Haute’s rates

Heiss said smaller Indiana cities “like Terre Haute have much higher rates of incarceration than our biggest cities, including places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston.”

And that’s occurring even as the overall national incarceration rate drops.

The Vera Institute reports the total prison incarceration rate in the United States is down 15 percent since 2008.

The institute reports that from 2017 to 2018, there was a 1.8 percent decline in the national prison incarceration rate, driven by a decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5 percent declines in incarceration rates in seven states.

However, the declines were not universal. Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Indiana, Texas, and Wyoming, according to the institute.

The institute collected year-end 2017 and 2018 prison population data directly from state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2018, to provide information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States

In its 2018 findings for Indiana, it reports:

• Indiana’s 2018 prison population grew by 3.3 percent over the previous year. The only state to add more people to its prison population in 2018 was Texas, which is home to more than four times more people than Indiana.

• From 2017 to 2018, Indiana added almost 900 people to its prison population, to reach a total of 26,877 people incarcerated in prison. It is one of just 19 states in which the number of people increased in 2018.

• Indiana’s prison incarceration rate grew 2.8 percent in 2018, from 391 people in prison per 100,000 residents to 402 people in prison per 100,000 residents. Only Iowa, Vermont, and Wyoming saw greater increases in their incarceration rate, though Indiana’s incarceration rate was higher than both Vermont and Iowa’s at year end.

• Between 2016 and 2018, Indiana saw the greatest growth in prison rates in the Midwest, with a prison incarceration rate that increased 4.3 percent, while nearly all of its neighboring states reduced their use of prison. Illinois’s prison incarceration rate decreased 7.9 percent, Michigan’s decreased 6.3 percent, and Ohio’s decreased 3.9 percent. It’s only neighbor to increase was Kentucky, rising 4.1 percent, which Vera Institute reports is technically a southern state.

Defining the question

The Vigo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee took a survey of members. One area of focus, Roberts told the committee, is an increase in potential probation officers. The increase was part of a recommendation in a 2018 Vigo County Jail and Criminal Justice Assessment, headed by RJS Justice Services.

That study recommended six additional adult probation officers to help level out caseloads, Roberts said. That would cost $63,000 per officer, plus $3,000 per person for office, computer and phone, plus $1,000 per officer for training. That totals $402,000 for six officers.

That caused John Lang, a member of the committee, as well as Vigo County Commissioner Judith Anderson, to say the committee should focus on long-term reductions to jail population outside of the court system.

“I am a little bit confused on the fact that I thought that this board was trying to help find solutions and find recommendations on how to help people with drug issues and mental issues ... with reaching out to the people already in the community with programs and what can they do to help, not hire more people,” Anderson said.

“I am not putting down the fact that you say you need these people, but we have not done anything on this committee with people who are out there that have programs. How can we get these people in a supervised program?” Anderson asked.

Lisa Spence-Bunnett, a member of the committee and the County Council, said she thinks the committee is now gathering data “to look at what our opportunities are with a recommendation keeping the [2018 Jail and Criminal Justice Assessment] study in mind.

“We are gathering data on some of the most impactful recommendations and what it might take to do each one. The whole intention, I think, was to put a whole number of things out there, not just try to cherry pick, but a number of things to consider as a whole and then determine which would make the most sense,” Spence-Bunnett said.

Lang said he thinks the committee should focus mainly on “how do we keep this jail from being overcrowded in five years. That really is the role that we have.

“We should coordinate efforts, activities, policies and practices, that will reduce the number of people who are actually incarcerated or cut down the length of their stays ... and do that in a matter that still regards the safety of the public,” Lang said.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.