Indianapolis Star Editorial

Hope and Fear on City's Streets

June 6, 2006
Early releases from jail create haven for crime

A disaster has been brewing in Indianapolis for years. But city and county leaders, despite repeated warnings, failed to intervene.

On Thursday night that disaster struck with devastating force. Seven family members, including three children, were murdered in their Near Eastside home.

It's no secret that the Marion County Jail has become little more than a revolving door because of overcrowding that triggers the early release of thousands of suspects. Many of them, left to their own recognizance, never bother to show up in court, confident they will escape further punishment.

Police and prosecutors say thieves and drug dealers know that even if they're arrested, they soon will be back on the streets. Small crimes lead to larger offenses. Entire neighborhoods, like the one where the Covarrubias and Albarran family was murdered, are tormented by increasingly brazen criminals.

One of the men accused in the murders, James Stewart, was picked up less than a month ago on a charge of driving under the influence. He has been convicted of four felonies and at least five misdemeanors. Yet, despite that record, he was quickly released after the DUI arrest May 16. Why? Jail overcrowding.

The other suspect in the murders, Desmond Turner, is classified as a habitual offender. He's been convicted of at least seven previous crimes. In November, Turner was paroled from state prison.

Even before last week's atrocity, inmates released early from the jail were accused in at least six murders in the past five years. Property and violent crimes in Marion County also have been on the rise. The Star reported last week that homicides increased 46 percent in the first four months of this year compared to 2005.

Last year, an Indianapolis Bar Association task force called on the City-County Council to support construction of a new criminal justice center, designed to improve efficiency and safety in the courts and to ease overcrowding in the jail. The cost of such a center -- up to $200 million -- wouldn't be cheap. Yet, it's only about a third of the cost of the new football stadium rising on the southside of Downtown. The Bar Association's plan, however, drew meager support.

After last week's murders, Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said he will ask officials in surrounding communities to accept into their jails inmates from Marion County. That's at best a temporary solution.

What's needed is a comprehensive plan for public safety, one that addresses jail overcrowding, overburdened courts and too few police officers and sheriff's deputies on the streets. The cost of confronting these needs may appear daunting. But the community already has paid a terrible price for neglecting the jail and the courts. If not now, when will local leaders finally act?