|Explore all options before building a county jail expansion|
|Written by Douglas Garner and N. Alan Miller III|
|Thursday, June 30, 2011 9:55 AM|
States across the country are trying to cut budget deficits by reducing their prison populations, rewriting their criminal laws and reconsidering who should be incarcerated.
Meanwhile, our local government is planning a $12 million expansion of the Dearborn County Jail, which will carry with it an annual operating cost of $1.34 million when filled. A jail expansion is not needed.
There are alternative solutions to the “overcrowding” problem. These alternatives should be explored and more questions should be asked before the county embarks on a costly jail expansion.
One solution is changing how bonds are set. Persons charged with a crime are normally given a “bond,” an amount they can pay to be released from jail while their case is pending.
Under Indiana law, the purposes of bond are to make certain the person charged shows up at future court dates and to protect the community from violent offenders. Judges have the power to set bonds. In most counties, bonds are set in cash or surety.
A cash bond requires the total amount be paid in cash before the accused can get out of jail. A surety bond requires 10 percent of the amount be paid, generally to a bail bondsman. The bail bondsman guarantees the person’s appearance in court.
The vast majority of the time, our judges set bond in two parts, requiring both a cash bond and a surety bond. One purpose of this practice is to collect court costs, fines, and probation fees up front. This has resulted in higher bonds for minor charges than in many counties. Many people arrested are unable to post bond and sit in jail pending the resolution of their case.
A study performed by RQAW, the company chosen to advise the county whether a new jail is needed, verified that 45 to 50 percent of people in our jail are being held pre-trial on misdemeanor charges.
Misdemeanors have a possible penalty of one year or less. Crimes such as first time OWl, first time possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct, underage drinking and battery without serious injury are misdemeanors.
Many, if not most of these people, do not pose a danger to the community nor pose a high risk of failing to appear on the scheduled court dates and therefore should not be held in jail while their case is pending.
The Dearborn County jail holds 216 people. According to the RQAW study, last year our average jail population was 258 inmates. At least 116, or 45 percent, of those people were held on minor charges because they could not post bond. If even half of those people were released pre-trial on lower bonds, written promises to appear, or house arrest, the jail “overcrowding” problem would not exist.
In addition to setting more reasonable bonds, there are other simple, less expensive alternatives to the overcrowding problem.
The American Bar Association in a report released earlier this year offered two proposals. First, more closely identify those persons pre-trial who are truly a risk to fail to appear in court or who are actually a danger to the community. Second, increase the use of alternative pre-trial detention tools, such as house arrest, to monitor persons while they await trial.
In addition to exploring these alternatives, the following questions should be answered before the debate is closed and Dearborn County forces the taxpayers to spend an additional $12 million and commits the taxpayers to cover the additional $1.34 million operating expenses each year after the jail is filled:
The RQAW study estimates when the new jail reaches 100 percent occupancy, it will require $1.34 million per year for administration and operating expenses. Where will that money come from?
How does the size of the Dearborn County jail compare to other counties in Indiana of similar population?
Why does Dearborn County require more jail space than comparable counties?
Why is the average length of stay in Dearborn County jail 70 percent to 100 percent longer than the average stay for other jails studied by RQAW?
Does Dearborn County use its community corrections (house arrest, work release, road crew) programs the same way other counties in Indiana do?
Could Dearborn County more effectively use its community corrections programs to eliminate the jail overcrowding problem?
What types of offenders can be released pre-trial without danger to the community?
How much of the new proposed jail is allocated for administration and office space for the sheriff’s department? Can the sheriff’s department utilize existing office space or off-site county space?
A $12 million jail expansion will cost Dearborn County $237.61 per resident.
This does not include operating costs of $1.34 million per year ($26.53 per year per resident).
We have a responsibility to investigate all available alternatives and demand the county obtain all the answers before we commit to building a jail we really don’t need.
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