Overcrowding at the Bartholomew County Jail has grown from an occasional problem into a nearly a daily occurrence.

From May through October, the average occupancy was 228 — four short of capacity, jail commander Maj. John Martoccia said.

The largest number of inmates held at one time was 263 on Sept. 17, Martoccia said.

Bartholomew County has one advantage not available in most other communities to address the problem, an unused older section of jail capable of holding up to 100 inmates.

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That section has remained closed due to inadequate staffing levels and state-mandated video surveillance equipment, Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said.

While five new jail officers are expected to be hired next year, that will simply bring the jail up to staffing levels it should be at already, the sheriff said.

Discussions are underway to use part of the old section to house inmates, while another part can be turned into a recovery center for inmates with opioid or methamphetamine addictions.

But the proposed in-jail recovery center, which Myers emphasized will only serve inmates, won’t be considered until at least January, Bartholomew County Auditor Barb Hackman said.

“Right now, our top priority is to reopen the old section of the jail to alleviate overcrowding,” Myers said.

In the same boat

Bartholomew County is not alone in its overcrowding problems.

Across the state, nearly half of all county jails — 44 out of 91 — are housing more inmates than their listed capacity. At least four have more than twice as many as they should, according to a study by a statewide sheriff’s office association.

And now, lawmakers are being asked to take up the issue.

Overcrowding has been a key topic of discussion for a summer study committee of lawmakers, who are looking at a number of factors that contribute to the number of inmates in county jails and what could be done to address the issue.

One topic of discussion has been state legislators’ decision in 2014 to have the lowest-level felons serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons.

That has increased the number of inmates in county jails, including in Bartholomew County, while also reducing the number in state prisons, even leading one state facility to close.

Currently, the jail in Columbus holds 37 inmates — 29 males and 8 females — who are low-level offenders serving out their sentences, rather than waiting for their case to go through the court system, Martoccia said.

But even if that legislation wasn’t in place, one-third of the state’s jails would still be overcrowded, according to a study by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

Lawmaker input

One key issue that is contributing to overcrowding, which lawmakers are continuing to address, is opiate and other drug addictions, local lawmakers said.

“The heroin epidemic has changed the landscape entirely. We have a greater amount of local incarceration due to drug abuse,” said State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.

Indiana lawmakers are considering different options that would help alleviate crowding in county jails, but changing the legislation about where the lowest level felons serve their sentences isn’t on that list, said Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, chairman of the corrections and criminal law committee.

One reasons that legislation was changed was so offenders who have committed non-violent felonies could benefit from programs within their community to help them recover from substance abuse or mental health issues, becoming productive citizens, Young said.

Those types of programs are not available in state prisons.

“Prison is for people we are afraid of, not mad at,” Young said.

State Sen. Rodric Bray, a Republican from Martinsville who serves on Young’s committee, says he believes the lower number of offenders currently in prison is temporary.

In addition to the change in where low-level felons serve their sentences, the state changed the credit time allowed for people convicted of more serious crimes so they spend more of their sentence in prison, he said. That will eventually lead to more inmates in state prisons, but on more serious charges, Bray said.

No-bail jail release

A bigger issue lawmakers are considering is how to get people out of jail on bond while they are waiting for their criminal case to be resolved, which accounts for more than half of the inmates in county jails, he said.

Bartholomew County is one of six Indiana counties using a federal program to re-evaluate processes in that regard.

The county is participating in the National Evidence Based Decision Making Initiative, an ongoing local collaborative effort that includes input from police, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, public defenders and others who work within the criminal justice system.

One part of that initiative is using an assessment on each inmate that determines which offenders could be released on their own recognizance, rather than being required to bond out of jail.

If Bartholomew County were not participating in that initiative, jail overcrowding would be substantially higher, Myers said.

Results from the initiative will be helpful in answering lawmakers’ questions regarding what prevents inmates from being released, Young said.

“Is it because they can’t afford bail, or are there other reasons why they shouldn’t be released? Are they a flight risk, potentially harmful, already been out and committed a crime and failed pretrial release?” Young said.

“We have a great number in there that maybe shouldn’t be in there,” he said.

The issue is one the Indiana Supreme Court has already been discussing, requiring all 92 counties to create an assessment system by next year to look at which inmates can be released without paying bail.

Mark Webber is a staff writer for The Republic; Annie Goeller is a staff writer for the Daily Journal of Franklin, a sister publication of The Republic.

Jail capacities, Indiana counties

Here is a look at the number of inmates in central Indiana jails this summer reported in a statewide study by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

County;capacity;total population;percent capacity

Bartholomew;232;243;105%

Boone;219;209;95%

Brown;104;36;35%

Decatur;66;110;167%

Hamilton;412;377;92%

Hancock;157;228;145%

Hendricks;268;243;91%

Jackson;172;261;152%

Johnson;322;463;144%

Madison;207;291;141%

Marion;2,507;2,489;99%

Morgan;440;331;75%

Shelby;203;240;118%

Statewide;21,478;21,360;99%

SOURCE: Indiana Sheriff’s Association

Bartholomew Co. jail population comparison

Annual average number of inmates at the 232-bed Bartholomew County Jail:

2012: 177

2013: 156

2014: 161

2015: 167

2016: 182

2017: 228 (May through October)

Source: Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department

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