Indiana’s prison population has dropped as the number of inmates housed in county jails has gone up, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said.

That’s the result of a state law passed three years ago requiring most Indiana inmates convicted of the lowest felony crime level to serve their time in county jails rather than state prisons.

The impact on the inmate population at the Bartholomew County Jail has mirrored what’s occurred in county jails statewide, Myers said.

The jail held three Level 6 inmates at the beginning of January 2016, but that number more than quadrupled to 30 a year later, jail commander Maj. John Martoccia said.

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Although the jail currently has enough space to handle the influx, the state reimbursement of $35 per inmate per day doesn’t come close to providing enough money to cover the cost of adequately staffing the larger jail population, both Martoccia and Myers said.

While there are many variables to consider, Myers estimates the actual cost is closer to $75 per inmate per day. Using that figure, he believes that is creating an additional $438,000 financial burden on local taxpayers each year.

Myers acknowledges there are benefits of the law change, which includes sustained contact and support for inmates from their families, which studies show help them make an easier transition back into the public after serving their sentence.

But the gap between revenue and expenses is large enough that Myers and Bartholomew County Council president Laura DeDomenic consider the law change an underfunded mandate.

Both underfunded and unfunded mandates from either the state or federal level have become more commonplace, causing a steady drain on already dwindling county resources, DeDomenic said.

While Myers estimates $212,000 in state funding will eventually be routed to Bartholomew County for 2016, only $136,190 of that had been received as of Feb. 7, according to county financial records.  No payments have been received from the state for services provided since October, the sheriff said.

The money trail

Reimbursements are deposited into the county’s general fund, controlled by the county council, rather than being routed directly to jails which are incurring the expense, he said.

“It’s not given back for programming and staffing,” Myers said during a Feb. 6 Third House legislative session at Columbus City Hall.

In response, State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said he doesn’t understand why the council doesn’t give those monies back to the jail.

To explain the situation, DeDomenic said property taxes make up less than 60 percent of the county’s $20.8 million general fund budget for 2017.

The state’s payment for jail expenses is just one of several fees and reimbursements received by various county departments that amount to about $3 million annually that are placed into the county’s general fund.

“If you did separate what Matt gets for the jail (and not do the same for other departments), we’d open up a can of worms,” said DeDomenic, who added state statutes greatly limit the council’s options.

State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, expressed caution regarding the sheriff’s inquiry about reimbursements being sent directly to jails instead of into a county’s general fund.

“We need to earmark dollars, but we need to do so in a way that doesn’t override the authority of county government,” Walker said.

But unless the problem is addressed, the county can expect to see an increase in both injuries and lawsuits, Myers said.

“There’s already an increase in the potential for our staff to make mistakes, due to a lack of manpower and increased workload,” the sheriff said. “We’re already seeing more fights in the jail since I’ve been in office.”

Myers has served as Bartholomew County sheriff since January 2015.

Conflict involving jail inmates was one of several concerns expressed by Myers when he brought up the matter to Smith and Walker in front of about 60 local residents at the Third House session about a month ago.

Since 90 percent of Bartholomew County jail inmates have drug and/or mental health issues, the county has contracted with Centerstone of Indiana to provide a sufficient level of treatment that could help them return to the community as productive citizens.

“I’m trying to be proactive, but I can’t do that,” Myers said. “I don’t have the staff to have (Centerstone staff) in there everyday.”

Due to funding constraints, the county council will have to prioritize spending needs before examining options for raising new revenue later this year, DeDomenic said.

Shifting prisoners

Since the General Assembly adopted the changes in 2014 regarding Level 6 inmates, Indiana’s prison population has dropped by 3,000 inmates, Indiana Department of Correction spokesman Ike Randolph said.

However, the practice has resulted in increasing jail populations throughout most of Indiana’s 92 counties, prompting several calls to Myers’ office asking that the Columbus jail house their inmates, too, the sheriff said.

One reason the local jail isn’t facing overpopulation problems is that Bartholomew is one of six Indiana counties participating in an initiative that allows low-risk offenders to be released on their own recognizance rather than being required to bond out of jail, Myers said.

“If we didn’t have that, we would be in serious trouble,” Myers said of the local jail capacity.

But even with that initiative, the jail still averages 35 more inmates at any given time than before the change regarding Level 6 offenses was made, Myers said.

More inmates requires more staff to be involved in inmate medical care, courthouse transports and meal preparation and youth services, as well as both in-house and out-of-house programs, the sheriff said.

Although the jail is physically capable of holding more than 350 inmates, a lack of monitoring equipment in the facility’s older section limits that capacity to 249, Chief Deputy Maj. Chris Lane said.

The highest inmate count to date has been 209, Myers said.

But whenever the jail has more than 200 inmates, the corrections staff loses its ability to determine which inmates need to be separated from each other, which increases the likelihood inmate assaulting one another, Lane said.

In an effort to keep ahead of overcrowding issues, the sheriff’s department has hired Al Bennett, a former deputy commissioner for the Indiana Department of Correction, who now operates a consulting business in Plainfield, Myers said.

Bennett, who has consulted for jails and prisons on a global scale, has already visited the local jail twice and remains in regular contact with Martoccia and his staff, the jail commander said.

An assessment with possible recommendations is expected from the consultant either later this month or in April, Myers said.

Former Bartholomew County Sheriff Kenny Whipker, who now works for the state correction department, recommended Bennett during a recent jail inspection, Myers said.

The maximum $3,000 consulting fee to Bennett will be paid by money raised through inmate commissary fees, rather than public funds, Martoccia said.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.