November 8, 2002 Indianapolis Star editorial

A strained system awaits the victors

November 8, 2002
Our position is: Finding solutions to jail overcrowding will require bipartisan cooperation between the sheriff and prosecutor.

We'd like to suggest a first order of business for Sheriff-elect Frank Anderson and Prosecutor-elect Carl Brizzi of Marion County.

First week on the job, we urge them to go together to the City-County Council and ask for an ordinance to establish a criminal justice council with policy-making powers. The new council's job would be to review criminal justice system issues and set policy on matters that cross agency boundaries.

Agencies represented would include the prosecutor, sheriff, Indianapolis police chief, chief public defender, Superior Court judges, and probation and community corrections departments. These folks try to work together now, but lack a formal mechanism for doing so.

Chief public defender David Cook proposed such a council at a fall public forum sponsored by The Star and WTHR (Channel 13). Anderson jumped on the idea as a campaign issue.

Such a council seems even more sensible in light of Tuesday's elections, which will require Marion County Republicans and Democrats to share power. The Democratic sheriff and the Republican prosecutor will have no choice but to collaborate on remedies for persistent jail overcrowding and insufficient system resources.

Although these two men will be the most visible elected officials to deal with these issues, a comprehensive strategy developed from input from all the affected agencies is needed.

The Marion County Lockup, which is run by the sheriff, has consistently exceeded its federal court cap of 297 prisoners. The jail, which can comfortably handle about 1,300 prisoners, routinely has had closer to 1,500.

Anderson, who promised professionalism, excellence, accountability and efficiency in his campaign, must now be more specific about the efficiencies that can be achieved on the arresting end of the process. Brizzi, who campaigned hard on shutting down illegal methamphetamine labs and being tough on criminals, will need to review the role of deputy prosecutors in justice system delays.

The county has scraped up enough money for another 100 jail beds that'll be available in January, authorized the construction of a high-tech arrest-processing center and worked to ensure that judges would have every bit of background information available on suspects considered for early release.

These short-term fixes will help, but the crux of the problem is an overtaxed justice system.

The area population has more than doubled in the nearly 40 years since the opening of the City-County Building, which houses the lockup and courts. There are 32 courts squeezed into a structure designed as an office building with 16 courtrooms. More than 60 judges and commissioners still can't keep up with 240,000 new cases filed each year, including 40,000 criminal cases.

Solving these problems will require a prosecutor and sheriff working together with their colleagues in a seamless and coordinated justice system.