September 28, 2003 Indianapolis Star Editorial

Opinion
Solving the Jail Overcrowding Puzzle

September 28, 2003
Our position is: Fixing Marion County's broken judicial system will require cooperation from all parties.

The recent early release of 148 inmates and proposals to send others to work-release programs or home detention to ease chronic overcrowding in the Marion County Jail have ramifications that reverberate throughout the community.

Residents wonder if the streets are safe.

Victims of domestic violence worry their attackers will be sent home to attack again.

Bail bond agents warn that giving judges more discretion in releasing inmates may mean more criminals not showing up for trial.

Judges fear they will be blamed if someone let loose early, put on work release or given home detention goes out and commits a violent crime.

A simplistic solution is to expand the jail or build a new one. But that takes time and money. It's likely not the best or most cost-effective solution.

What is needed is a comprehensive look at the entire criminal justice system in Marion County. Money spent on additional jail space probably ought to be spent on more judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers to move people through the system faster.

"If we can improve the time it takes to bring the average case to trial by 30 days or 60 days, that's 30 or 60 days of jail time per case that you could save," said Marion Circuit and Superior Court Administrator Mark Renner. "We could absolutely reduce jail overcrowding without building a single cell."

It also would expedite justice, resulting in better trials, quicker relief to victims and a greater impact on criminals.

A state formula for determining how many judges a county should have indicates that Marion County needs 16 to 18 more judicial officers to try cases. But the General Assembly isn't apt to authorize more because there aren't courtrooms to put them in.

Even if there were, there aren't enough prosecutors or public defenders to handle the bigger caseload.

"Walk in any of our courts, look at the typical calendar, and you will see the same prosecutor or the same public defender is scheduled to handle two, three, four or more cases on the same day," Renner noted. "Obviously they can't, so you try one of the cases and the other four (defendants) go back to jail."

According to Renner, progress has been made with the opening of the new arrestee processing center. It reduces jail time for defendants waiting to make an initial court appearance and be released on bond. But it also moves the bottleneck down the line.

A new Criminal Justice Planning Council, designed to review all aspects of the county's judicial system, is seeking funding from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. Until the council comes up with comprehensive fixes for the entire system, there's no point in rushing to build new courtrooms or jail cells.

John R. Maley, past president of the Indianapolis Bar Association and vice chair of the Indianapolis and Marion County Justice Center Task Force, notes there already have been three studies showing the need for a new judicial center -- an integral part of the overall solution.

"It's time for someone to step up and show some leadership," he said.

Judges indicate they have reached the saturation point in finding alternatives to putting defendants in overcrowded jails.

Superior Judge Evan Goodman, who handles felony cases and has long been an advocate of finding alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, said, "I'm letting out people I wouldn't have let out last year. I worry about that."

Work-release programs are filled to capacity and need to be expanded. But it also means more parole officers would be needed to keep track of offenders.

Meanwhile, the threat of fines for violating court orders to eliminate jail overcrowding hangs over a county already scrounging to find money to pay its bills.

A comprehensive solution to the serious and interrelated problems afflicting the judicial system must be found -- and found quickly. It will take all the players -- judges, the sheriff, the mayor, the City-County Council, the prosecutor and public defender -- working together to fix a broken system.