FORT WAYNE – Allen County officials will consider increasing jail space and expanding alternative programs such as work release, probation and home detention in light of a new state law that becomes effective July 1.
Court officials held a lengthy discussion during Thursday’s County Council meeting about the possible ramifications of House Bill 1006 – a revamp of the criminal code aimed at sending more low-level, nonviolent offenders to local community corrections programs and jails instead of to state Department of Correction prisons.
“This is a daunting and scary when you consider the number of people sent to the Department of Corrections that will now come back to the county,” Council President Darren Vogt, R-3rd said.
In 2012, Allen County sent 564 low-level felons to the Department of Correction. Under the new law, those inmates would come back to the county. The county will not be allowed to send inmates with sentences of less than one year to state prisons, Vogt said.
A study group will include representatives from the County Council and commissioners, Community Corrections, prosecutors, judges, the sheriff’s department and other “major players,” Vogt said.
The law is worrisome because the jail is at capacity most of the time, Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries said Friday.
The state mandate has no mechanism to cover the additional costs counties will incur in making accommodations to house more inmates or expand alternative programs, Fries said.
“The state expects to save $11 million, but it simply throws the expenses back onto the counties,” he said.
It costs the state $35 a day to house an inmate, compared with the county’s cost of $43, Fries said.
“The county has a bench that already heavily uses Community Corrections, work release and problem solving and drug courts, but those programs need expanded,” Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said.
“We do not just send people to the Department of Corrections willy-nilly.”
It would be a scary game to play when the judicial branch has to stop before sentencing someone and consider whether the county is out of money, Gull said.
The jail has two unfinished wings that could house 76 inmates, but to finish those wings and hire the necessary staff would cost a minimum of $5 million and $2 million a year after that to maintain, Fries said.
There is also the possibility of adding another floor to the six-level jail, but the cost would be even greater, Fries said.
The jail has been expanded three times – in 1994, 1998 and again in 2002.
The expansion of programs such as problem-solving courts, probation, work release and home detention would also require more money, space and personnel, he said.
“Allen County has some of the best court programs in the state,” Fries said, “and those programs work very well for some people.”
The special courts are aimed at reducing recidivism and include Restoration Court, Drug Court, Re-Entry Court and the newly created Veterans Court.
But there are always those who refuse to comply and are in and out of jail for probation violations, Fries said.
“They often spend 60 to 90 days awaiting trial with no credit for time served,” he said.
As of Friday, there were 700 inmates in the county jail and 124 were there because of a probation violation, Fries said.
“And that will increase as the state puts more pressure on us to put more people on probation,” he said.
Several court officials agreed with Fries.
“The biggest predictor of who goes to jail is their prior record,” Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Michael McAlexander said. “Once someone has exhausted all of the programs and won’t comply – that’s our biggest challenge.”
“As taxpayers, we don’t want to spend $35,000 a year to send a non-violent addict to prison,” McAlexander said.
A low-level felon “who beats up a woman badly, maybe twice, is not going to go to probation – he may go back and beat her up again or even kill her,” Allen Superior Court Judge Wendy Davis said.
“There may be other ways to house them, but we are struggling to find out what those are.”
The group will examine the implications of the new law, the county’s options and study the feasibility of expanding programs and jail space.