Howard County’s jail population, despite local efforts to lower the number of inmates, has maintained its status as one of the area's most pressing problems.
Data provided to the Tribune by jail officials shows an average population of 444 inmates at the Howard County facility through July 26. In comparison, the average through July 2017 was nearly identical, at 451; the total year average last year was 442 inmates.
Howard County’s fixed-bed capacity is 364, requiring a significant portion of the jail population to sleep on portable bunks.
Those numbers show the continuing issue of overpopulation at the Howard County Jail and the struggle experienced by local officials in tamping down inmate figures boosted by now years-old state legislation and the still-rising number of female inmates.
The most noticeable concern, though, is that this year's figures come after the implementation of major initiatives meant to control the jail's population.
But it might still be too early, say some in judicial and law enforcement circles, to quantify the impact of those initiatives, like a reallocation of cases at the Howard County Courthouse and a still nascent work release program.
Regardless, the problem of jail overpopulation has not dissipated, and there is not an assured end in sight.
In fact, the issue has become a statewide epidemic, as three out of four Indiana jails were at or exceeded 80 percent capacity, the National Institute of Correction's definition of overcrowded. Those findings were released in a December 2017 Indiana Criminal Justice Institute Report.
The issue has even motivated officials like jail commander Robin Byers and Sheriff Steve Rogers to discuss responses ranging from temporary trailer housing for inmates to a new pod for female inmates.
The jail’s population, which hit 473 last weekend, required Rogers to successfully request a $100,000 additional appropriation from the Howard County Council on Tuesday for correctional officers overtime pay.
“The population is manageable, but we are still running a good population at the jail,” he told council members. “We still have a lot of overtime, a lot of medical issues that we’re dealing with, which does require a lot of overtime.”
The beat goes on
Howard County’s jail population has been a hot topic since the passage of legislation at the Indiana Statehouse roughly four years ago that’s had serious ramifications on county jails.
Indiana House Enrolled Act 1006, passed in 2014, was meant to ease the burden for the Indiana Department of Correction by shifting low-level and nonviolent offenders to county jails. But it has also created a significant burden on jails like Howard County’s.
The local jail, said Byers, has for stretches of time held more than 70 Level 6 felony inmates, people who previously would have been sent to a DOC facility. At its highest, that number has reached 86.
Take away those inmates, and Howard County would be around its fixed-bed capacity.
“I think a lot of counties would greatly appreciate that, if they would take a second look at that 1006 bill,” she noted. That case has been made directly to legislators and DOC officials by Rogers, who has visited the Statehouse, alongside other Indiana sheriffs, and relayed the weight felt by county officials in handling the expensive, pressing problem.
Still, the reality of the 1006 bill can't be ignored, and it's caused Byers and other county officials to adopt new approaches to handling a jail population affected simultaneously by state legislation and a continuing drug crisis.
That impact has especially been felt in the number of female inmates.
In 2012, Howard County had an average of 70 female inmates. In 2015, that number dropped to 63.
But by 2017, the amount of women in the local jail had jumped to 102. That growth has continued into 2018; through July 26 the average in 2018 was 109.
“I don’t know if we’ve dropped below 100 for any length of time,” said Byers, who described the female population as jail officials’ main ongoing concern.
“Maybe for a couple hours and then it’s right back over 100. I know in one weekend there were 35 people arrested and half of them were females.”
While exploding female population figures have been experienced across the nation, Byers pointed to the “huge drug problem in Howard County” and the ease with which women can self-medicate to deal with past trauma when explaining the growth of women in jail.
Other expert studies, specifically a January 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, have blamed harmful public policies, the increased likelihood that women will not be able to afford bail and the sparse presence of diversion programs aimed specifically at female inmates.
Byers said the explosion of female inmate numbers have caused her and Rogers to discuss the potential for the construction of additional housing, specifically a pod, “for just the female population.”
The idea, she acknowledged, is far from solid. Jail officials haven’t even agreed yet on how big such a construction project would need to be.
“It’s just talking, because you’ve got to talk about something. We’ve got to look at something,” said Byers.
Most recently, jail officials in 2013 renovated an indoor recreation room into a 36-bed cell. The existing cells where males were housed were then transitioned to house female inmates.
But even that quickly became inadequate.
“We have now surpassed what that brought us,” said Rogers in April 2017, calling females “the critical segment of our population.”
It’s also become more difficult to ship inmates to out-of-county facilities, a tactic that has been used since 2016 to ease the burden in Howard County’s jail.
But now, said Byers, no one has room.
“We put them where we have a space. Last year, we dealt with our high population — we sent people out,” she explained, noting that in 2017 there was an average of 17 Howard County inmates, and as many as 40, held out-of-county.
That option, which includes a daily payment for each inmate, often around $35, is quickly disappearing.
Byers said she has called nearly every jail north of Bloomington in an effort to open up space in Howard County. But all she’s finding is a similar story.
“The only jail that I found that could take five inmates, and I needed at the time to move out at least 30 men and 20 women, is what I was looking to move, or I would take any variation of, was Steuben County … the furthest northeast county in our state,” she noted.
With Steuben County only able to accept five inmates — nowhere near the 50 Byers was looking to offload — jail officials quickly determined that the cost of transporting them to the Michigan border was not worth the minimal benefit.
In response, Byers said she has worked with DOC representatives to get higher-level felons who were arrested in Howard County to state facilities more quickly.
And Howard County officials, she explained, have even discussed the possibility of paying for temporary jail housing, likely in the form of trailers strung together outside the Markland Avenue facility.
“The sheriff and I have talked about, there’s a company, I think, out of St. Louis, that actually has temporary housing capabilities where it’s trailers that they link together and can put in a rec yard and bed spaces and an eating area, like a big day room,” noted Byers.
More immediate approaches, however, have come in the form of a restructuring of Howard County’s court system and a work release facility.
A new look
In February, Howard County’s judges announced two proposals that would overhaul the local judicial system and, county officials hope, lower the jail’s population figures.
The two-part plan included a request filed with the Indiana Supreme Court that described a revision of the county’s case-allocation system, in large part by establishing a weekly rotation schedule for felony cases.
On March 21, the request was approved.
The second proposal, for a magistrate judge that would likely be stationed at a courtroom in the Howard County jail, requires approval by the Indiana General Assembly and would at the earliest be implemented in July 2019.
The judges have said that a magistrate would likely handle initial criminal hearings for inmates, utilizing the jail’s courtroom. Hearings would be held immediately, every day, allowing inmates to be processed “more quickly and uniformly.”
Such a move — officials like Rogers, Superior Court 3 Judge Doug Tate, Commissioner Paul Wyman and Howard County Council President Dick Miller have sent letters to Rep. Mike Karickhoff urging approval of the move — would allow courts to resolve pending cases, and could lower the jail’s population.
Karickhoff is expected to put the case on an agenda for a conference committee hearing sometime in August, said Tate, who will speak before legislators.
“We’re right in the beginning stages here,” noted Tate. “Basically, what the council and the commissioners are saying is that we’re interested in exploring this option as a way to alleviate court congestion and jail over-population.”
Having a magistrate at the already-existing jail courtroom, he said, could be used to more quickly process people brought to the jail.
“So each morning people who have been arrested, they’re not going to be lingering in our county jail for two, three, four days,” noted Tate. “We’re going to immediately decide what we’re going to do with them at that point.
“If we really are focusing on trying to control our jail population, expediting the process I think is going to go a long way to helping that,” he added later.
Notably, the judges’ movement in February came only weeks after Superior Court 1 Judge William Menges told the Howard County Council that without extra resources, specifically a new employee, he would stop operating a series of problem-solving courts, including a popular and impactful drug court program.
The other problem-solving courts include domestic violence, re-entry, pre-trial supervision and the county’s Vivitrol program.
Menges’ comments created a wave of controversy within the courthouse and county government, and the proposals provided both a response to his concerns and a reaction to troubling statistics showing that Howard County was then the second-most overworked judicial system in Indiana.
Also at the center of the courthouse reallocation decision was the county’s problem-solving courts, which involves the still-active drug court and other problem-solving initiatives dedicated to mental health, veterans, domestic violence and a juvenile program.
In response, the county has since hired a problem-solving court (PSC) coordinator, a new employee who works through the probation department and lessens the burden among courthouse staff by handling various PSC responsibilities.
“We’re seeing this all start to become more streamlined,” said Tate.
Specifically, the caseload allocation changes, implemented April 1, have distributed all criminal cases, including drug and domestic violence cases, which previously went to Menges, among all five courts.
Alongside that, all misdemeanor cases are now filed in Superior Court 3, headed by Tate, and all felony cases are filed in the other four courts on a weekly rotation schedule that relies on when a crime is committed.
The judges also met in February and agreed to modify the civil caseload allocation to “achieve a relatively equal distribution of caseload overall” among the courts, including Menges' court.
Those modifications have included filing all small claim cases in Superior Court 3; all juvenile, paternity, adoption and tax sale cases in Circuit Court; all mental health cases randomly in Superior Courts 2 and 4; and all other civil cases randomly among all courts except Superior Court 3.
At the time the requests were filed, Howard County’s judicial system was in obvious need of a change.
Statistics compiled by the Indiana Judicial Branch showed that Howard County had the second most heavily stressed court system in the state.
Specifically, Circuit Court was listed with a 1.87 utilization; that is, it would take 1.87 judges to handle the caseload based on a formula the state uses. This means the court has 87 percent more cases than it can effectively process under Indiana standards.
Superior Court 1 was listed at 1.68, followed by Superior Court 3 at 1.46, Superior Court 2 at 1.29 and Superior Court 4 at 1.17.
But recent statistics, updated in April after Howard County’s courthouse overall took effect, show an improved picture.
The county has dropped to the 10th most heavily stressed court system in Indiana, and the individual courts have seen their numbers improve.
Circuit Court was given a 1.60 utilization, followed by Superior Court 1 at 1.58 and Superior Court 3 at 1.27. Then followed Superior Court 2 at 1.18 and Superior Court 4 at 1.06.
And Byers said the move has already created a noticeable change in the speed that misdemeanants, a person who committed a misdemeanor crime, get to their initial hearings.
That speed, she remarked, once got the jail population down to 408, although it only stayed at that level for hours.
“It’s like three steps forward and maybe one or two steps back, and the four steps forward and two or three steps back,” she said. “But as long as we’re going forward more than we’re going back, then our count is slowly decreasing.”
Give it time, Tate stressed, before coming to conclusions.
“We’re still way, way too early in this reallocation plan to know whether or not we’re going to be able to address that issue,” he said, referring to jail overpopulation. He thinks by October patterns will emerge and judgements can be made.
Howard County, however is now roughly seven months and into a work release facility, located near the jail, on Berkley Road, that has had over 50 inmates in recent weeks. Full capacity – the facility can currently hold 80 inmates, all male, although some will be DOC transfers – is expected by the end of the year.
The work release program, which has received public attention in its early months for a rash of walkaways and inmates not returning from work, has had a positive impact, said Byers.
“I think it’s helped, because the people that are down at work release right now would be in our jail,” he remarked.
It’s hard to tell, though, when the jail’s female population could be benefited by work release after the county failed to receive grant funding this year for a female pod.
The pressing issue, though, has grown from an avoidable mistake.
A collection of officials, including some on the Howard County Council, at one time expressed concern that renovating the old jail on Berkley Road, where the work release facility is now located, would become a money pit, citing differing reports from engineering consultant DLZ that showed renovation figures ranging from $1 million to $3.8 million.
So, in July 2016, a proposal to renovate the facility was voted down by a 4 to 3 margin by council members, with the dissenters citing financial worries.
“It’s shameful," said Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman at the time. "We have to call the state now and tell them to withdraw our grant for the $1.1 million that was about to be approved next week.”
But a similar proposal was given unanimous approval only months later, in November 2016, when one council member, John Roberts, announced that he would switch his vote.
The initial decision to deny the work release proposal effectively cost the county more than $1 million that was available in 2016.
The county instead was granted just $608,000 in 2017 from the DOC, causing the work release program to start as a male-only facility operating with roughly 80 beds. County officials initially planned to have as many as 120 beds, with a portion dedicated to female inmates.
Ultimately, the Howard County Board of Commissioners awarded a construction bid for the project at only $508,430, shining an explicit light on the missteps made by the council members who fought work release on the belief that a renovation would be unreasonably expensive.
That months-long delay in the second half of 2016 continues to haunt county officials, left now without a place to assist the fastest-growing prison population demographic at the Howard County Jail: women.