INCREASE: On Oct. 6 at the Howard County Criminal Justice Center, shown here, there were 458 inmates housed in a facility designed for about 100 fewer. Howard Co. experienced increased jail population figures in seven of the year’s first nine months compared to 2016. Staff photo by Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune
The Howard County Criminal Justice Center has throughout much of 2017 seen increased jail population totals from last year – which, along with a rise in arrest totals, highlights two problems tied directly to state legislation and the ongoing drug epidemic.
But officials are hopeful that an incoming project – the county’s new work release program – will serve as, if not an immediate solution, a long-term barrier to an overcrowded jail and pervasive recidivism.
Howard County experienced increased jail population figures in seven of the year’s first nine months compared to 2016, according to statistics provided to the Tribune in late September. Dramatic increases were seen in January through June, with aminor increase in July.
March represents the highest average monthly jail population, at 473, including inmates held out of county – compared to 342 in 2016. Through Sept. 25, last month had an average of 424 inmates, a slight decline from 2016.
Decreases were seen in August and through much of September, as shown in the data provided on Sept. 25. The jail’s female population has shown similar trends, with a high in March of 120 inmates; the number was at 97 in September.
Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers credited the recent dip, although minor and a possible outlier, to efforts by local criminal justice system officials, including judges and the prosecutor’s office, to get people through the system more quickly.
Rising arrest totals, though, have also been highlighted by jail officials.
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 25, Howard County had an arrest total of 3,378. That figure sat at 3,103 during the same time period in 2016. During an interview earlier this year, Rogers credited the increasing arrest figures to a drug epidemic that continues to provoke criminal activity.
“Across the nation, the influence of drugs on criminal activity is just dominant. It’s the dominant part of it,” said Rogers in April. “If somehow you could wave a magic wand and somehow drugs no longer existed, the damage from drugs is no longer there, no one even knows what the hell drugs are, do you know how many people we could get out of jail?
“Oh my goodness. If you look at domestic violence close enough, you’re going to find drugs and alcohol. Theft, burglaries, it goes on and on and on.”
The drug epidemic – 2017 is already the most lethal year for overdoses in Howard County history – and the subsequent impact of being jailed also lead to a high rate of repeat offenders.
And while the county’s exact recidivism rate could not be obtained by press time, Rogers noted that “you would consider it pretty significant.”
“That has to be the target, for criminal justice and especially people that are incarcerated,” said Rogers. “That has to be a focus, because if we can reduce recidivism, then that’s a big thing, because then we break the cycle on people going to jail.”
The recidivism rate and jail overcrowding are both things that local officials hope will be positively affected by the county’s incoming work release program, scheduled to kick off around New Year’s.
In August, the Howard County Board of Commissioners approved a construction bid to renovate the former county jail on Berkley Road into a work release facility. The program will start as male-only, operating with roughly 80 beds.
While things won’t be as easy as looking at the jail population total and slashing it by 80 – some inmates will immediately be transferred to work release, while others will be sentenced to the facility starting next year – both Rogers and Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman believe work release could have a long-term impact.
In an interview, Wyman said that while work release wasn’t motivated in full by the jail population, the issue “certainly was a part of it.”
“The beauty of a work release program is it gives the judges another sentencing option, and for people who have lower level offenses, they can go to jail yet keep their jobs,” said Wyman.
“By people being able to keep their jobs, serve their time, the hope is that when they get out … they still have their job, they still pay their bills and the family stays together.”
Wyman who, along with Rogers, spotlighted the importance of implementing or further enabling mental health and addiction treatment, said the work release facility could house as many as 40 DOC inmates, culminating in substantial income for the county.
“It takes a lot of money to run a work release facility, so if the DOC is paying somebody to be in there, we have a guaranteed income that can go into the budget, and we can actually predict that this is how much money we will get based on the DOC inmates,” he said, noting that the exact mix of local and DOC inmates could be impacted by how judges utilize the new sentencing option.
Some DOC inmates will likely also be people from Howard County attempting to assimilate back into the community, said Wyman.
And if the county receives additional grant money next year, a female work release program could be up and running by late 2018 to early 2019, Wyman previously noted.
“I don’t know if anyone can predict the exact numbers of what work release is going to do, but we are certainly hopeful that that’s another option to get people back into the community, keep them at work, rather than keep them locked up in jail,” added Rogers.
Rogers later noted that he’s hoping work release “will take some of that stress off the jail.
“We’re hoping there is a significant number of people that come out of our anticipated jail population,” he said. “And the other thing is, if work release is effective at breaking that cycle of recidivism, that will be some long-range problem- solving.”
Another focus for local officials is the continued impact of Indiana House Enrolled Act 1006, which many law enforcement officials believe is a primary reason for ballooning jail population figures.
The bill, passed in 2014, was meant to ease the burden for the Indiana Department of Correction by shifting low-level and nonviolent offenders to county jails. But it has ultimately created a significant burden on jails like Howard County’s.
Rogers – who has been public in his criticism of the legislation and said that DOC inmates in the Howard County Criminal Justice Center number about 55 to 65 per day – said he will in coming months keep up his communication with DOC and state officials about the additional stress placed on county jails.
“We are really hopeful that work release is going to take a chunk of those folks, and I’m still going to go back to the DOC and state legislators and say, ‘Hey, it would certainly help local jails if you can take Level 6 felons back,’” he said, noting that the issue will be on the agenda of a November meeting of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.
A report to Indiana lawmakers provided last month showed that the state hasn’t seen significant savings from the criminal sentencing overhaul.
The report presented to a legislative committee shows the average monthly number of new state prison inmates declined from nearly 650 in 2014 to more than 120 last year. That decline allowed the state to close the Henryville Correctional Facility in southeastern Indiana, reducing spending by nearly $2.5 million.
But Chris Johnston of KSM Consulting told lawmakers that most of those offenders are ending up in county jails, rather than community corrections and probation programs.
“[HEA] 1006 in my opinion didn’t work,” said Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis. “We just transferred the liability.”
The KSM study found the state’s $11 million estimated annual prison savings are largely consumed by the nearly $9.5 million it pays to counties holding low-level felons in jail.
“We just thought [HEA 1006] was very unfair, because, again, jails are supposed to be for pre-trial detainees. And now we are trying to turn them into prisons. I personally don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” added Rogers.
“But if we keep talking about it, and we can make sense, there may be some relief down the way.”
In conjunction, Wyman expressed hope that the issue will be tackled in some way in next year’s Indiana General Assembly session.
“They absolutely are recognizing it, state legislators have been talking about it and my guess is it’s going to be a discussion in the upcoming legislative session,” said Wyman. “We’re not the only county that has a jail overcrowding situation now; this is consistent throughout many counties … and that all started the minute this new legislation went into place.”