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Sheriffs brace for strain on jails

New law keeps low-level felons out state prisons

County jails are bracing for what to do with low-level felony offenders now that the Indiana Department of Correction will no longer house them.

Whether there will be enough room is a concern for those in charge of jails, but the needs of the inmates could outweigh the burden of simply finding space.

For some defendants, their arrests go hand-in-hand with mental illnesses that may have contributed more than anything else to their criminal behavior.

Allen County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Dave Gladieux does not hold back on his frustration with the burden on jails.

“The actual care that we give these people, and the fact that they’re in our system because they have a mental illness, is wrong,” he said.

Local jails would often send low-level felony offenders to state prisons because of discipline problems or mental health needs.

“We’re becoming more of a mental health institution … we have far more cases of people with mental illness now than when I started in 1996,” said Sean Martin, jail commander for Whitley County.

As part of sweeping changes to Indiana’s criminal code and sentencing guidelines, effective July 1, defendants sentenced to 90 days or less of incarceration cannot go to state prisons. In 2015, that changes to a sentence of one year or less.

Larry Landis, of Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law and executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, expects jails to feel some strain from the change.

“In the short term, there’s probably going to be some burden,” he said.

Limited space

The changes do not affect inmates serving sentences for convictions before the changes took effect.

With a population in mid-June of 114 and only 100 beds, space is already limited in Whitley County’s jail – although the cells are large enough to house three inmates per cell if needed.

Aside from the potential hardships of more inmates, their needs are at the forefront of Martin’s mind.

Landis also feels overcrowding is not the main problem at hand, but rather the treatment that may not be available in all counties.

“The real issue is we don’t have enough alternatives and treatment for people with mental illness,” he said, adding that the Department of Correction estimates 80 percent of its inmates have substance abuse or serious mental health needs.

Allen County is also tight for space, but with 1 1/2 blocks of the jail incomplete, it has some options if the local jail population increases.

Despite room for growth, there isn’t a lot of room to spare, with a count in mid-June of 699 inmates and 740 beds.

Even so, any potential increase in inmate population will put more of a strain on jail staff.

The Allen County Council recently denied a request to add nine jailers to the roster. “We’re out of room. Our work release is out of room, and as far as I know, home detention is packed, too,” Gladieux said.

Doug Garrison, public information officer for the Department of Correction, said one goal of the changes was to put low-level offenders in a more suitable environment instead of having them with violent offenders in prison.

Landis said counties with community corrections programs will likely fare better, but even so, those programs are often at capacity.

Gladieux, Martin and officials at other local jails are making plans for a worst-case scenario, although how it all will play out is still unknown.

“It could be a wash,” Capt. Aaron Rovenstine of the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department said.

He takes that cautiously optimistic tone because although more low-level felony offenders will not be able to serve their sentences at state facilities, the restructuring of Indiana’s sentencing laws could mean those offenders will not be eligible for long-term incarceration.

“A lot of those were felony levels that may change,” including marijuana and controlled substance sentences, said Mike Holler, jail commander for Noble County.

Garrison said how much the sentencing changes affect jail and prison populations will likely not be known for months, even a year.

“It depends on how judges sentence under the new guidelines,” he said.

Overtaxed staff

Martin, in Whitley County, said he would be at a loss if many inmates were sent back to his jail from the county’s work-release program.

If things got really dire, he would have to turn to jails in surrounding counties and pay them to house Whitley County’s inmates.

Noble County Sheriff Doug Harp is among those who hope everything evens out – or that any increase in local jail populations is not significant.

He has the room to spare, with only 159 inmates in Noble County’s 262-inmate jail the first week of June, but the jail has averaged 220 inmates in some years.

It’s the level of care needed for those potential future residents that concerns him.

Noble County, like others jails, has in-house mental health care as part of its health care contract for inmates, but jailers and deputies sometimes need to take inmates to a mental health provider’s office.

“It will be taxing on the staff … it’s much more time-consuming,” Harp said.

How often local jails sent inmates to serve their prison sentences at a state facility instead of the local jail varied.

Allen County did not hold felony offenders in its jail and sent them to the state Department of Correction to serve their sentences.

Kosciusko County also made frequent use of the option to not house felony offenders locally and instead would likely send most, if not all, to serve their time at a state facility.

Noble and Whitley counties, however, typically house their DOC offenders locally unless they become a discipline problem or space gets limited.

From now on, they’ll have to figure out how to handle those situations in-house.