By Mark Bennett
Problems rarely are confined to a single place.
What happens in Terre Haute doesn’t stay in Terre Haute. The same is true for Muncie, Albuquerque, Peoria and Valdosta. People borrow strategies and habits, and behaviors follow similar patterns. Thus, those trends are worth studying. That research could reveal a dilemma’s underlying cause and a solution.
Vigo County isn’t the only community faced with an overcrowded jail in need of replacement. Under pressure from lawsuits on behalf of inmates, county officials are moving forward with a plan to built a new, larger $60 million jail in place of the current facility, which was built in 1981 and expanded 15 years ago. At a meeting with concerned citizens Tuesday, Commissioner Brad Anderson said 32 Indiana counties are expanding jails or designing new ones.
State officials pay too little attention to that situation, writing it off as a problem for local governments because new jails are typically built with local tax dollars. That’s the conclusion of the Prison Policy Initiative’s new report, “Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.” State policymakers focus on reforms in their state prisons, but largely ignore local jails even though “jail practices reflect state priorities and change statewide outcomes,” the report stated.
The predicament involves the states in several ways, including the fact that local jails often house inmates for the state or federal systems. Fourteen percent of inmates in Indiana’s local jails, for example, are being held for other authorities, according to the report by the PPI, a nonpartisan organization that studies mass incarceration.
It’s a state problem, too, said Joshua Aiken, policy fellow at the PPI and author of the report released Wednesday.
“The challenge with state level policies for jails is that very few states have looked at jails as a state-level issue,” Aiken said by phone from the PPI’s base in Massachusetts.
Among the states, Indiana is one of the most profoundly affected. Indiana experienced the 10th highest rate of growth in local jail incarcerations from 1978 to 2013, the researchers found, using federal data. Indiana’s rate more than tripled in that span, becoming 3.14 times larger than in ‘78.
Tough-on-crime approaches to law enforcement, prosecutions and sentences don’t account for all of the growth. In fact, the PPI says the convicted population has declined during the past two decades. (A separate New York Times study last year found similar results, except in rural counties with populations below 100,000, where prison admissions increased despite crime rates falling. The Times’ statistics showed Vigo County with a 35 percent decrease in prison admissions from 2006-14, at 21.7 per 100,000 residents.)
Instead of tough-on-crime policies, the PPI report targeted “the two real drivers of [local] jail growth” across the nation. One is the significant increase in the jails’ pre-trial population — people held while awaiting their day in court. Seventy percent of Indiana’s local jail population is being detained pre-trial, compared to just under 63 percent nationwide.
The other primary cause, the report said, is an increasing number of jails renting cells to outside authorities as “a side-business.” In half of the states, 10 percent or more of the jail population are people held for other jurisdictions. A whopping two-thirds of jail inmates in Louisiana aren’t local people, because 52 percent of the state prison population there are housed on contract in local jails.
Sharing jail space can offer efficiency, when one county absorbs another’s inmates, if that approach prevents the building of a new jail. By contrast, “systematic” renting of cells changes policies and priorities for jails, and reduces local interest in implementing reforms involving bail amounts and diverting people with mental health and addiction problems into properly equipped programs and facilities, the report stated.
Such reforms are crucial to breaking the cycle of people repeatedly going to jails that have become “the default response to all kinds of social ills,” the PPI said. Changing some offenses to non-jailable infractions is one the report’s recommendations, because the impact of a three-day stint in jail can run deep, affecting the person’s job, bill paying, housing and well-being of dependent kids. That leads to more defendants failing to appear for court dates and also committing new crimes, the numbers showed.
A high number of “repeat offenders,” Aiken explained, “really drives home that something’s not being addressed.” For such communities, he added, “a really important question to ask is, ‘Are we doing everything we can to reduce repeat offenders?’”
The report’s bottom-line finding is that jail growth “is not inevitable.”
It suggests that state legislatures examine all of the contributing factors, from bail and arrest policies to court burdens, pre-trial diversion programs and outdated laws.
It’s a problem that is costly, in many ways.
The financial price, alone, should draw the attention of state officials across the country, Aiken believes. “There is an appetite for looking at budgets,” he said, “realizing huge amounts are going into the criminal justice system and it isn’t panning out.”
Indiana’s local jail statistics
• 70 percent of the local jail population in Indiana are pre-trial detainees.
• 14 percent of the local jail population is being housed for other authorities.
• Indiana’s jail incarceration rate more than tripled from 1978 to 2013.
• Indiana had the nation’s 10th highest rate of local jail population growth.
Source: Prison Policy Initiative
Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.