Indianapolis Star Editorial

Put Public Safety High on Priority List

December 27, 2004
Our position is: The city needs finally to find a solution to jail overcrowding and other public safety needs.

The city continues to buzz about Mayor Bart Peterson's plan to build a new stadium for the Indianapolis Colts and expand the convention center. The mayor has been creative, determined and tireless in pursuit of a deal.

City leaders now need those same qualities to solve other challenges facing the city, including jail overcrowding.

A dozen years before the existing football stadium was built and Mayflower vans moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, litigation was filed in the federal courts to end overcrowding in the Marion County Jail.

Decades have passed. Huge sums of money have been spent on litigation. Courts have intervened, including a contempt ruling last year. Fines have been paid and numerous reports filed.

But the problem remains. A population cap of 1,135 inmates, imposed by U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker, only means thousands who should be incarcerated while awaiting trial are let go every year. A growing number of them -- more than 20,000 last year -- aren't bothering to show up for their court appearances.

Aggressively pursuing warrants and re-arresting felons, however, would mean having to find jail space for them again.

Last month, Lamar Blount became the fifth inmate to be charged with murder shortly after being released from jail because of overcrowding.

Cale Bradford, presiding judge of the county's 32 superior courts, recently complained that the county's justice system is underfunded. He urged the creation of seven new courts in the 2005 budget so inmates can be brought to trial sooner instead of languishing in overcrowded jail cells. Instead, the court budget was cut by $1.9 million.

It isn't just a matter of building more jail cells, although that would likely help. It is a matter of having adequate court and corrections personnel, as well as good programs for home detention, work release, parole and probation. The county's judicial system needs to do a better job of sifting through who belongs in jail and who doesn't, and finding the proper places to put everybody.

Ultimately, it's a matter of protecting the public. As Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson said: "We just can't keep putting a Band-Aid on a very serious wound."

Judges, law enforcement officials, City-County Council members and legislators need to come together to find workable and cost-effective solutions.

Then there is the mayor. He's in the best position to help finally find a solution to this intolerable situation.