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New Marion County jail? It's complicated

May 12th, 2016 | IndyStar | link to article

Four factors could determine the outcome of the decades-long debate

After two-plus decades, countless studies, and more than $16 million dollars spent with nothing to show for it, is Marion County finally getting a new jail?

On the heels of Mayor Joe Hogsett's first State of the City address, signs increasingly point to yes — but a naysayer might point out that the prospects looked good around this time in 2014, as well.

Flash back to 18 months ago: Republican Mayor Greg Ballard in December 2014 stood side by side with Democratic Sheriff John Layton to announce a project that the sheriff called "the face of justice in Marion County for years to come."

Within six months, the sheriff had pulled his support and the mayor couldn't even muster enough support from the City-County Council to bring it to the full chamber for a vote.

So why will this time be any different?

The political climate, for one. The first year of a new mayor, whose Democratic party controls the Council and the Marion County Sheriff's Department, is worlds apart from a Republican mayor facing a divided government in a lame duck election year.

Two, the pitch has changed. While Ballard tried to sell the idea of a badly needed modern facility, Hogsett is framing the discussion around broader criminal justice reform — including a push to reduce incarceration of non-violent offenders. That could go a long way toward placating opponents who don't believe that more jail beds are desirable.

Meanwhile, all the reasons why it was needed then, are only becoming harder to ignore. Overcrowding at the 50-year-old Marion County Jail has reached "crisis" proportions, according to the Sheriff's Department, and each day that passes without a new jail, county taxpayers shell out more money to ship our inmates elsewhere.

“It’s disheartening that the largest county in Indiana by far is farming our inmates to other counties in the state,”’ Layton said in an interview Thursday.

And if Hogsett hopes to tackle Indianapolis' budget woes in a meaningful way, the Sheriff's Department is the obvious place to start: its budget has risen steadily in recent years, even as the city has been forced to cut back other services.

But there are a still a number of hurdles and unknowns that make the push for a new jail anything but simple.

The political climate

Today's political climate figures to work in the administration's favor.

Hogsett just won election in a landslide, so he has political capital to spend. And unlike Ballard, his party has a one-seat majority on the City-County Council — though a handful of Democrats have shown a willingness to buck party lines, and a jail could be a potential flash point for such a dispute.

Still, if he needs Republican support to get it done, that doesn't look to be a problem at this point.

Republicans have come along for both of Hogsett's major initiatives so far — an ethics reform ordinance, and a public safety restructuring — and Minority Leader Michael McQuillen's chief criticism on the jail proposal Thursday was that construction hadn't already started.

"I’m more than a little frustrated that we’re still dragging our feet," McQuillen said, referencing the task force Hogsett created to study the issue. "We know what the problem is. The solution is a new facility. So let’s do it."

The scope of the facility

Here's where things become a bit unpredictable.

The dream scenario among area leaders since as early as 1999 has been to consolidate the county's far-flung courts, legal offices and jails into one facility.

That's at least one reason the new jail hasn't happened: it's really hard to get lawyers, judges, the sheriff, the mayor and the council all on the same page. And then to sell the public on a facility of that size and cost.

It proved beyond Ballard's capabilities in an election year — though there's room for debate how much of that opposition was politics vs. policy.

So will Hogsett's task force recommend a full-fledged criminal justice center, or something smaller?

The former may run into the same political headwinds, and the same financial questions that halted the last proposal. But if the new proposal keeps the courts in a separate building, Layton noted that the task force will have to account for daily transportation costs between the courtrooms and the jail.

That would cut into the potential benefits to taxpayers. Ballard's team believed there was $48 million or so in annual savings to be found from consolidation.

The number of beds

Grassroots organizers with IndyCAN, a multi-faith advocacy group, last year argued bitterly against the Ballard plan, finding support from many council Democrats in their overarching message of "jobs, not jails."

Any facility whose overarching purpose was to increase capacity, they have said, is unacceptable.

Hogsett on Wednesday spoke directly to those concerns, saying "our criminal justice system is broken — and merely adding more space to house more people isn’t the answer. That has been tried, and it did not work. A new building will not solve our crime problems."

He outlined new policies to divert non-violent offenders from jail and said mental health and drug abuse treatment was preferable to incarceration in many cases.

On Thursday, the Rev. Juard Barnes, an IndyCAN leader, praised Hogsett's pledge of criminal justice reform, calling it a "moral stand for thousands of Hoosier families directly impacted by the pain of over-incarceration."

Ballard's plan also spoke to the need for better community corrections, doubling the capacity of existing transitional facilities. But the 500 new detention beds became the focal point of the opposition.

"We now know, and we knew two years ago, that a significant percentage (of the jail population) is non-violent," said Margaret Gross, an IndyCAN supporter. "A significant percentage is the (people with) mental health problems, the veterans, the homeless people."

Still, overcrowding and the need for beds remains the most pressing argument for a new jail. So how Hogsett balances capacity with sentencing reform will be critical to cultivating support from all camps.

How to pay for it

Indianapolis-Marion County is facing a budget crunch as it is, and new taxes aren't likely to be palatable on the heels of a potential income tax hike for mass transit. On top of that, the city just raised income taxes two years ago for new police officers — and cops are a much easier sell than a jail.

Ballard's model looked to finance the new facility's construction, maintenance and operations over 35 years with projected operational savings.

Council Democrats offered an alternative that would have bonded against existing county option income tax dollars.

Neither one would raise taxes, but both models had their critics from across the aisle.

McQuillen says he "draws no lines in the sand" over how to pay for it, he just wants it done soon. Construction and financing costs have only gone up over time.

"My fear is that the eventual facility that’s going to be built will be even more expensive than the previous administration planned," McQuillen said. "...My fear is that politics will continue to mire down the process."

Hogsett's called for a panel to adopt the final recommendations before the end of the year.

But stay tuned: a lot can change in seven months.