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Grassroots group challenges jail plan, wants focus on jobs

November 1, 2014 | Indianapolis Business Journal | Link to Article

Grassroots group challenges jail plan, wants focus on jobs

A grassroots, church-based organization is trying to stir up voter interest in the city’s plan for a new criminal justice complex and questioning the need to expand jail capacity.

The Indianapolis Congregational Action Network, or IndyCAN, is asking Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard not to build more jail space in the new complex, which could cost as much as $600 million, and trying to rally support for a “jobs not jails” platform.

The city is asking potential development partners to submit proposals for a jail with 3,000 beds, an increase of 493, or 20 percent, over the current facilities. The courts-jail complex would also include a separate building with space for 950 beds in Community Corrections, which is alternative sentencing.

The plan would nearly double Community Corrections’ capacity of 500 beds. Community Corrections oversees home detention and remote monitoring, but it also runs the Duvall Residential Center, where inmates are allowed to leave during the day for work or school.

“Are they scaling it to the right size?” asked Alex Slabosky, a retired IU Health executive and IndyCAN volunteer.

IndyCAN organizers say they don’t want to stand in the way of the justice center but are looking to slow down the procurement process so that the jail specifications can be changed. They question the need for additional beds in the face of lawmakers’ stated goal of reducing the incarceration rate.

The Indiana Legislature overhauled the criminal code in 2013 with the goal of putting fewer non-violent offenders in state prisons and lowering the statewide incarceration rate. It’s unclear, though, whether the code changes, which took effect July 1, will lead to a lower incarceration rate, or simply slow down growth in the state prison population while shifting more offenders to the county level.

Slabosky points out that most of the people held in Marion County – 73 percent – are awaiting trial, and the state’s pre-trial detention policies could change in the next few years.

This summer, Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson appointed a committee to study pre-trial detention with one of the goals being reducing unnecessary use of county jails.

Marion County is planning for an influx of inmates, and the Ballard administration and Sheriff John Layton both believe it’s reasonable to add roughly 1,000 new beds between the jail and Community Corrections.

“It is simply not realistic to build this facility without an increase in beds,” Ballard spokesman Marc Lotter said via email. “The City is building a facility to serve Indy for the next 60+ years. During that time our population is anticipated to grow dramatically. Jail population is also expected to grow due to changes in state law passed by the General Assembly.”

Lotter noted that the plans emphasize increasing capacity in Community Corrections, where offenders have access to programs that help them transition back to society, plus mental-health and addiction services. It would be “irresponsible” to hope for a change in pre-trial detention policies or sentencing laws, Lotter said.

“The state just made dramatic changes to the sentencing laws for the first time in 30 years, and it is clear this will not be a regular practice at the Statehouse,” he said.

For the past eight weeks, IndyCAN member churches have been running phone banks and talking to thousands of voters. The group’s “jobs not jails” platform seems to resonate in a county that sees an estimated 5,000 offenders a year return from state prisons, Executive Director Shoshanna Spector said.

Although the criminal justice complex is not on the Nov. 4 ballot, IndyCAN is urging voters to turn out for the election as a show of strength. IndyCAN is a non-partisan group and isn’t talking to voters about specific candidates, Spector said.

Ballard’s administration hopes to enter a 35-year agreement with a developer group that would finance, design, build and maintain the justice complex before handing it back to the city. That agreement could go before the City-County Council as early as February.

If IndyCAN’s effort increases voter turnout on Nov. 4, that will be leverage over council members who face re-election in 2015, IndyCAN member Sharon Trotter said. Ballard has not said whether he will run for re-election next year.

Melaine Brown, an IndyCAN leader at Eastern Star Church, said she’s made about 1,000 calls during her weekly volunteer shift, and most of the people she talks with are hearing about the justice center for the first time.

Brown said she got involved in the campaign because IndyCAN’s “jobs not jails” platform also demands that the city and the justice center developer agree to fund the creation of more jobs programs for ex-offenders.

As a native of Gary, Brown said she witnessed in the lives of her friends how jobs keep people from re-offending.

“These transitional programs do work,” she said. “I’ve seen them work, personally.”

Ballard and Layton also see the new jail as a potential revenue generator, and IndyCAN members are questioning the morality of that policy.

“Why should we profit from other people’s misery?” said Steve Lattimore, an IndyCAN member from Northside New Era Baptist Church.

Ballard’s plan is to use some of the additional jail capacity to house federal detainees, including immigrants. IndyCAN supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The sheriff currently has a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to hold as many as 99 federal inmates a day, Lt. Col. Louis Dezelan said. That sometimes includes people wanted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said, but in those cases, the detainees have been in jail for other, non-immigration offenses.

He said they are rarely held on behalf of ICE for more than 24 hours. The federal government pays the county $65 a day, and the reimbursement rate is set to rise to $75 a day on Nov. 1, Dezelan said.

“The hope is that the number of beds for that contract would go up,” he said.

Lotter said building only to house local arrestees means the county would forego millions in potential revenue every year.