September 28, 2003, Indianapolis Star

We All Have a Stake in the New Arrestee Center

September 28, 2003
By Natalie Hipple

On Aug. 24, without much fanfare, the new Arrestee Processing Center opened for business. You might ask, so what?

Yes, the jail is overcrowded. Yes, we have been hearing about it for a long time now. And yes, Judge Sarah Evans Barker has levied fines against the Marion County Sheriff's Department.

But if you are like most law-abiding citizens, most of the above has occurred "under the radar," making the new center little more than back-page news.

But it is a big deal -- and not just for those eggheads (like me) who spend their time studying criminal justice issues. It's a big deal for everyone living in Marion County. Why?

First, it is important to explain the difference between a "jail" and a "prison." Although they are often used interchangeably, the two really are different, which means something to you as a citizen of Marion County. Jail is where people are sent who are waiting to see a judge, whether for an initial hearing or a trial. These are usually locally run institutions. In most cases, they are operated at the county level by sheriffs' departments.

People held in jails can be dangerous people on one end or simply unable to post bond on the other. Jail is also a place for those who are sentenced to serve less than 365 days. Prisons, on the other hand, are state- or federal-run institutions where people serve sentences measured in years. County budgets pay for jails; state (and sometimes federal) budgets pay for prisons.

So jail overcrowding is always a local problem. In Marion County, for example, the jail and the jail annex on Alabama Street have spaces for 1,130 inmates. At the height of the overcrowding crunch in April, there were 1,686 people housed in those locations. Additionally, the Marion County Lockup, which has a federally imposed cap of 297 prisoners, exceeds population limits 30 percent of the time.

The situation was so bad that beginning in April 2002, police officers and sheriff's deputies were forced to "triage" criminal offenses by writing summons (basically tickets) for people to appear in court for nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses as possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, driving with a suspended license, operating a vehicle never having received a license, prostitution, patronizing a prostitute and conversion (theft). Not surprisingly, many didn't make it to their hearings. Instead, they stayed on the streets.

Traditionally, communities looking to ease jail overcrowding have built new jails. That's not a good sign for a county because, like the line in the film "Field of Dreams," "If you build it, they will come." Building another jail doesn't solve the problem. In fact, it usually allows for more people who are awaiting initial hearings or trials -- and more people who are serving less than one year -- to be housed. The supply of criminals and defendants always seems to fill the jail beds available, which leads us back to overcrowding.

Marion County has taken a new, innovative approach to the jail overcrowding challenge. We are only the fourth locale in the country to operate an Arrestee Processing Center. At the APC, people charged with misdemeanors and Class D felonies can be processed on the spot. Arrestees are logged in, fingerprinted, photographed and moved on to a bail commissioner. Those charged with misdemeanors will have initial hearings in court before walking out the doors.

The system is not perfect. As the Sept. 8 Star reported, there are "kinks to work out." Nothing new is easy, and why should processing accused criminals in a new way be different? The APC is working to get people who normally would be housed in the jail (those waiting for an initial hearing) their day in court. Judges are working on-site 20 hours a day. So, rather than spending even a day or two waiting to see a judge, taking up bed space, consuming food and requiring supervision, these people are spending time in a waiting area.

I am not sure there is anything that will solve the jail overcrowding problem. But the APC is certainly a step in the right direction. The people of Indianapolis should give it a fair chance and commend city and county officials for their hard work and innovative ideas.

Hipple is assistant director of Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute's Crime Control Policy Center.