In an ambitious leap, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is unveiling plans for sweeping reform that would weave through every aspect of Marion County’s massive criminal justice system and include the construction of a new jail.
Mental health professionals and law enforcement would assess people for mental illness and substance abuse, and in some cases, divert them from the jail into treatment. Social workers and paramedics would team with police officers to help the most troubled and vulnerable. And Marion County’s outdated and overtaxed jails system would find relief in the form of two new facilities built across about 50 acres in a to-be-determined location.
Many aspects of reform have been incubating in Marion County for months — if not years. Now, though, with an increasing reliance on law enforcement officials to battle issues of mental illness, addiction and poverty as much as they battle crime and violence, Hogsett is making the kind of long-term bet that could impact city residents for generations — and stand as a major legacy for the first-term mayor who heavily campaigned on a message of public safety.
“It will profoundly change the way justice is dispensed,” said Hogsett, a former federal prosecutor and Indiana secretary of state, during a preview of the 100-plus page report with IndyStar last week. “Hopefully, in the final analysis, it will make our city safer and more peaceful.”
But as former Mayor Greg Ballard’s administration knows too well, the path from dream to implementation can be filled with setbacks and failures, institutional roadblocks and financing problems. Ballard’s plan for a criminal justice center fell apart amid concerns over the public/private financing model and the $1.75 billion price tag.
Hogsett’s plan, thus far, remains in the early stages. There is no financing model. No location for a new jail. No bids. And he has not yet outlined any specific costs, though his administration put it bluntly: hundreds of millions of dollars.
And Hogsett vows that he would not raise taxes to pay for the project. His administration, instead, would make payments with an estimated $35 million saved from expected inefficiencies each year.
Stakeholders, too, see an easier path to constructing a new jail given the accompanying reforms that dive into the entrenched problems rampant across the justice system. Many who see the day-to-day workings say change is sorely needed, and are already showing their support — though they caution that they need to see a financing model.
“It’s never a good time to build a new jail,” said Councilman Leroy Robinson, a Democrat who represents District 1 and chairs the public safety committee. “But when it’s being implemented with a strategic plan for overall criminal justice reform, it is more palatable.”
In May, officers with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office declared the county jail system to be in “crisis mode.” Without enough beds, officials were forced to ship some inmates to the Elkhart County Jail.
Days later, Hogsett announced his intentions for a new jail and pushed for reform during his State of the City address. He created a task force to study all facets of criminal justice, and to deliver a set of recommendations before the end of the year. Those recommendations formed Hogsett’s proposal.
But while the jails are overcrowded, the crisis extends further than bed space. Overcrowding is symptomatic of a bigger problem in the criminal justice system: Up to 40 percent of jail inmates are classified as mentally ill, according to the task force report. About 85 percent of the inmates have substance abuse problems.
Additionally, the task force report noted, the Arrestee Processing Center, where inmates go before jail, is not equipped for proper mental health and addiction assessments on those who are arrested.
This comes at a high cost — both for the county and for the arrested. Financially, the report says caring for these mentally ill inmates costs about $7.7 million per year, which includes distributing more than 700 prescriptions each day and added security for mentally ill inmates.
On a more crucial level, the root causes of offenses can be better treated outside of jails.
Otherwise, the people then become what the task force is calling “super utilizers.” They are in and out of the system, soaking up funds and not getting better — only to return to jail later.
“It’s gotten to the point where we simply warehouse people in dire straits,” Marion County Sheriff John Layton said.
So far this year, patrol officers have made 700 “immediate detentions,” Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Assistant Chief Bryan Roach said, which happen when individuals are detained because they were dangerous to themselves or others. From 2010 to 2013, the task force report says, EMS calls that involved mental illness jumped by 45 percent.
But too often, Roach said, police are faced with a choice that is too binary: Let people go or arrest them, placing them in the jail where they are not likely to get necessary help.
“That is what we’re trying to avoid,” Roach said.
The task force began by digging into the deeply-rooted problems in Marion County’s justice system. The fixes are sprawling and long term — the kind of reform that will likely take years to see results. Most fixes would begin with modest pilot programs before potential expansion down the road.
The aims, though, echo a statewide push. In 2014, Indiana lawmakers passed a criminal justice reform bill that seeks to divert inmates with mental illness or substance abuse problems from prison to local communities to receive treatment. This has contributed to jail overcrowding problems in Marion County, as well as other counties across the state, as low-level felons who would have been in prison are now in a county jail.
The challenge for local law enforcement is to keep those inmates out of jail entirely, using a mix of solutions such as electronic monitoring, alternative courts and treatment.
But first, to accomplish this, the task force outlines what it calls The Indianapolis Model.
The model seeks to put into place systems to do four things: identify those with mental illness and substance abuse problems, assess and diagnose the problems, channel them to treatment and, finally, treat the problem. This would happen both before and after arrests.
Before an arrest, for example, newly created mobile crisis units — staffed by a law enforcement officer, social worker and paramedic — would respond to mental health 911 calls to give officers more options. And IMPD is partnering with New York University School of Law to develop a mental health screening tool patrol officers can use while responding to calls.
The plan also recommends initiatives that allow for intervention after arrests, such as an increased reliance on Marion County’s problem-solving courts, which allow some low-level offenders to seek treatment under the court’s supervision rather than moving through the traditional court system.
Such programs reduce costs and incarceration in the longterm, said Andrew Falk, senior fellow of the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, who is studying the effects of the state’s sentencing reforms.
“Treating, as opposed to merely incarcerating, those with mental health needs and addiction problems reduces recidivism in Indiana by 20 percent,” said Falk, citing an article that examined sentencing reform published in the Valparaiso University Law Review. “So providing mental health and addiction programs has a significant benefit.”
Still, such aims require front-end investment, even if they might save money down the road. And Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry questioned how many defendants are left that aren’t already diverted through existing programs, such as problem-solving courts or the diversion programs in his office. He noted that in 2017 the prosecutor’s pretrial diversion program — which allows defendants to have charges dismissed if they meet certain requirements — will expand to include some low-level felonies, along with misdemeanors.
“It’s a real unknown whether there’s any significant number beyond that,” Curry said. “If there are, that’s great, but do it on a limited basis.”
Marion Superior Judge Jose Salinas, who oversees the county’s drug and re-entry courts, said there may be offenders who qualify for the court’s services that are not being funneled to his court.
But expanding the program would require hiring more case workers. Salinas noted the drug and re-entry courts in total have six caseworkers, each with a caseload limited to a maximum of about 50. At any given time, both courts in total serve about 260 to 300 people, with 300 being the maximum they can accommodate. To increase the size of the court, Salinas said, would require an investment in more caseworkers, as well as workers to conduct assessments on the front end.
“If we took this approach on a wider scale, it would cost money,” he said. “But in the long run, it would save money.”
The final part of the task force’s plan is likely receive the most scrutiny: New facilities, including a new jail.
The plan also proposes a new assessment center to accompany the jail that is tasked with routing people away from incarceration when necessary.
A new courthouse could be part of the mix, too, creating a criminal justice campus that Hogsett’s administration expects to be located along 50 acres within two miles of downtown.
Constructing a new jail is the city’s white whale, a project long discussed and studied but never realized. It has incited controversy and disagreement about how to pay for it, whether it is needed.
“There’s zero doubt that we need a new jail,” Curry said.
Most agree with Curry, though stakeholders who spoke with IndyStar cited caution until the mayor’s office reveals up-front costs and a financing model.
“There’s still going to be skepticism on how we’re going to pay for it until we see the model,” said Councilman Jeff Miller, a Republican who represents District 16, which encompasses parts of the city’s south and west sides. “Hogsett said from the beginning that he is not going to need to raise taxes to do it. If that ends of being the case, I don’t see resistance.”
The mayor’s office came up with $35 million each year by patching together savings it says will come from areas such as a reduction in sheriff’s office personnel given a streamlined jail facility. Additionally, the task force proposed moving Marion County Community Corrections — which oversees the electronic monitoring program and offers bed space for offenders serving time in programs like work release — to an existing jail site that would be vacated. That could save a yearly $1.5 million in rent that Community Corrections currently pays.
In the proposal, next to the new jail would be a new Marion County Assessment and Intervention Center, where individuals would be assessed for mental health and substance abuse problems. They could receive short-term detoxification and crisis behavioral health treatment. They would work with social workers, prosecutors and public defenders to be routed to the appropriate long-term placement. They would stay for as short as four hours or as long as two weeks.
The new jail would combine three existing jail facilities, plus the Arrestee Processing Center, under one roof. The plan suggests creating 2,600 to 3,000 beds. Currently, Marion County can hold 2,500 inmates. As a snapshot of jail occupancy at a given point in time, in October, the jail was responsible for slightly more than 2,600 inmates, according to a study conducted by the financial planning group BKD. About 130 were housed in Elkhart.
The task force recommends using design elements, as well as some location possibilities from the Ballard administration’s proposal, and notes that the committee used work product from the previous studies.
The proposal also includes 170 mental health beds, 140 medical beds and a 32-bed infirmary and clinic, which the report says would cut down on costly trips to Eskenazi Hospital.
Finally, the proposal suggests that the set-up would be most fruitful if judges and courtrooms moved from the City-County Building to the new justice campus, though it leaves the decision up to the judiciary.
“We certainly need the space,” said Marion Superior Judge Barbara Crawford. “We need an updated facility.”
Crawford said many judges, such as herself, do not have space to accommodate a jury trial, so they must find space and relocate during trials. She also noted that the building’s layout requires inmates to be transferred between the jail and the courtrooms out in the open, albeit escorted by a deputy.
“We have a concern about what happens in the hallways,” she said, “when victims and defendants are in the same space at the same time.”
In his State of the City address, Hogsett said that while a new jail “may be necessary, it is certainly not sufficient.” He decried what he called “Band-Aid fixes” in an inefficient and ineffective criminal justice system, and called for wider reform.
Now, the stars may be aligned as they weren’t before.
Community stakeholders and council members say packaging a proposal for a new jail with other reforms makes the project more appealing.
“Before, we weren’t doing enough on the reform side to address social issues,” said Councilman Miller, who suggested there may be more support for the project this time around.
Still, the up-front cost remains unknown, leading some to remain cautious when speaking about the project. The mayor’s office plans to have a cost estimate by Feb. 28 and a finance and construction plan by March 31.
Councilman Robinson said there is an appetite on the council for this project, particularly as the administration has involved the council thus far.
“The council’s main focus will be two-fold: Is the city being fiscally responsible with this initiative?” Robinson said, “and if the reform efforts will improve the overall quality of life for all of our residents and visitors to Marion County.”
Hogsett said the reform proposals will start incrementally with pilot programs to make sure they work, and that his administration is still analyzing costs.
“Part of the reason I can’t quote verbatim cost estimates today is because that process is ongoing,” he said.
Still, Hogsett said he is building a fiscally responsible record, with a proposed operating budget in 2017 that spends less money than the previous year and the structural budget deficit which he said he cut in half.
“There will probably be many challenges with an initiative of this size and scope,” Hogsett said. “This type of systemic reform will ultimately save the taxpayers an enormous amount of money.”
Hogsett will begin pitching his reforms at 4 p.m. Monday, when he meets with the county’s Criminal Justice Planning Council.