Can Indiana trade overcrowded jails for treatment reform?
By Madeline Buckley and Kristine Guerra | July 10, 2016
Two years ago, Ashley Sorrel wore a hospital gown inside the Marion County Jail, with twigs and dirt snarled in her hair and 92 stitches stretched across her body.
Hours before, Sorrel, now 29, led Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers on a high-speed chase after she was caught stealing FedEx packages from residential porches to pay for her drug habit. Sorrel crashed, and her car caught fire. She tried to run, but police canines chased her down, and an officer deployed his Taser.
This was close to rock bottom. But it wasn't her final criminal charge.
Sorrel quickly racked up another theft charge after she was released from jail, again to pay for drugs. A judge sentenced her to a year of home detention. Knowing she couldn't stay clean during the sentence, Sorrel applied for a recovery program. She said the last time she got high was July 2014.
Sorrel represents the type of offender that Indiana's new criminal justice reform seeks to help. The sweeping changes, passed in 2014, aim to make punishments more proportional to the crime by keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison. Instead, treatment programs would help defendants recover from mental health and substance abuse problems while serving their sentences in local communities.
The goal is to turn Indiana from a state that simply incarcerates to one that also rehabilitates. But is it working?
Sorrel and other recovering addicts, along with those who treat them, say the treatment process is often at odds with the legal system. The system is so bureaucratic and tangled, they told IndyStar, that the average person can't navigate from addiction to recovery.
So far, treatment programs remain underutilized in many counties. And too many inmates simply trade an Indiana Department of Correction prison cell for one in a county jail, where it is more expensive to house offenders — potentially costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Yet lawmakers, state officials and experts are urging Hoosiers to give the reform time to work.
Some of the reform's goals — such as not sending nonviolent offenders to prison — have been achieved, said Andrew Falk, senior fellow of the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis, who is studying the effects of the sentencing reforms.
"But the goals that most Indiana citizens and legislators care the most about — crime rates, rehabilitation of ex-offenders and our prison population — are harder to measure in the short term," Falk said, adding that it will take several years before the public sees any tangible impact of the reform.
The kind of change that Indiana has set out to achieve is also seen on the national level, as lawmakers try to pass legislation that would reduce sentences for nonviolent federal drug offenses. Change of this magnitude not only takes time to materialize; it's also expensive.
In Indiana, the price tag has reached millions, and that's just the beginning.
And as with any kind of change, let alone a massive one, there are growing pains. That includes an overcrowding problem that has put Marion County Jail, the state's largest jail, in "crisis mode."
Not a new problem
Efforts to reform Indiana's sentencing laws began in 2009, when incarceration rates were so high that the state nearly needed a new prison. Five years later, the legislature passed House Enrolled Act 1006, which requires low-level and nonviolent offenders to serve their sentences in local communities.
While there's general consensus that HEA 1006 is contributing to an increase in jail populations, some say overcrowding is not a new problem caused by the reform. Almost a third of Indiana county jails had capacity issues before the reform took effect, Falk said.
The problem has existed in Marion County since at least 2006. Now, the county is shipping more than 100 inmates to Elkhart County at the cost of $40 per inmate each day.
Marion County isn't the only jail facing overcrowding. At the Johnson County Jail, inmates sleep on mattresses propped up off the ground by a hard piece of plastic. In Hamilton County, more than 330 inmates are crowded into the 296-capacity jail, which has spurred the county sheriff to call for an $11.9 million overhaul of the jail.
The jails in Hancock and Shelby counties hovered near their capacity in the spring.
The overall picture isn't as alarming statewide, but there's still a noticeable influx in daily population, said Stephen Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs' Association. Counties that normally didn't see a rise in population now do, Luce said.
Fixing the problem of overcrowding will require more than HEA 1006.
After all, well over half of inmates in county jails across the state are awaiting trial, not low-level felons sentenced under the new law, Luce said. Addressing that problem is an entirely different, but related, battle against mass incarceration — one that would require prosecutors, public defenders and judges to answer a key question about people accused of a crime: Are they all violent and a danger to the public?
But regardless of why inmates are behind bars — whether they are awaiting trial or have been sentenced — overcrowding likely will remain a problem until programs and services created through the sentencing reform see some success in reducing recidivism.
The pressure will be on local communities to come up with their own ways to deal with inmates with mental health or substance abuse problems.
Creative alternatives to incarceration
For the sweeping sentencing reform to work statewide, it must translate to local reform in all of Indiana's 92 counties.
That's a bit difficult in Indiana, which, unlike many other states, has a "decentralized system," said David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and a member of a committee that studies incarceration alternatives and funding for counties.
For instance, while probation officers in some states, such as Wisconsin, are all state employees who receive the same level of training, each Indiana county has its own probation system.
"The good is you have tremendous creativity. You have pockets of excellence," Powell said. "And then you have pockets of not so good."
Only about half of Indiana's counties have established, or are planning to add, special courts that address problems such as mental health and drug addiction, according to a directory of courts updated in May.
Grant County was an early adopter of alternative courts, establishing its first drug court in 2005. It also was one of seven jurisdictions selected in 2010 to be part of a national criminal justice initiative that worked to develop programs to reduce the chance that an individual would re-offend while facing criminal charges.
The initiative, called Evidence-Based Decision Making and spearheaded by the National Institute of Corrections, has helped Grant County stay ahead of the curve when handling the influx of offenders resulting from the sentencing reform law, Grant Circuit Judge Mark Spitzer said. After the county established its drug court, it created a veterans court, an adult re-entry court and a family dependency drug court.
Grant County has used local resources, such as mental health treatment centers, and state grant funding as well as resources such as the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP 2.0), which gives offenders access to health insurance to help pay for the treatment they need.
"The first thing you need to do as a county is sit down and really take an inventory of services to see what is available as alternatives to incarceration," said Spitzer, speaking about ways to prevent overcrowding.
Other counties are looking for creative ways to combine state and local resources to treat offenders. In Union County, one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state, a group of community members established a pilot program to help treat drug addicts. The Union County Health Department oversees the program, which treats addicts with a medical device called a Bridge.
Jeff Mathews, co-director of the program, said the device looks like a hearing aid. It sits behind the ear and sends electrical feedback to the brain that is meant to ease withdrawal symptoms.
Paired with counseling, the idea is to help addicts through the worst period of withdrawal to reduce the risk they will re-offend during that vulnerable time. The program works with judges and prosecutors, who determine which offenders should be ordered to undergo this treatment.
"When they successfully complete this, and if they continue to stay clean, charges are either reduced or dropped," Mathews said.
The county patches together funding through grants, donations, HIP 2.0 and local funds, but Mathews said he is working with the state to try to secure long-term funding for the program.
In Boone County, authorities received a state grant to establish a program in which some offenders with an opiate addiction would receive counseling and a shot of Vivitrol, a drug used to block the effects of opiates.
"If we start helping these people solve the addiction, we are not going to get them back in my facility," Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen said.
On the other end of the spectrum are counties such as Elkhart County, one of the 45 counties that has no problem-solving courts in the planning stages. The county in 2008 moved into a new, 1,002-bed corrections facility, which is now accommodating the Marion County overflow.
The new jail cost about $93 million, according to the Elkhart County auditor's office.
The jail generally holds about 600 of its own inmates, said Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, leaving space for inmates from counties with overcrowding problems. Yoder said the county expects to bring in $2 million to $3 million through housing inmates from Marion and other counties.
Capt. Jim Bradberry, spokesman for the Elkhart County Sheriff's Office, declined to discuss the jail with IndyStar.
Marion County fits somewhere in the middle. The county received nearly $7.5 million in additional funding for community corrections and special courts for 2016 and 2017, according to the Indiana Department of Correction, but it's too early to see results.
Paying for everything
To achieve the rehabilitation goals that lawmakers had in mind, the reform must save money. So far, the results have been mixed.
First, the good news: Over the past year, the prison population has shrunk by 4 percent, or about 1,100 inmates, allowing the Department of Correction to close the Henryville Correctional Facility in Southern Indiana. Officials said this could save the state $2.25 million in 2017.
The bad news, however, is that a DOC report generated in March notes that the reform could cost the state about $400,000 a year. That's because the DOC must pay counties $35 per day for each low-level inmate who serves a sentence in jail rather than prison, whereas it costs only $10 a day to house them in prison, according to the report.
And with 60 percent of low-level inmates being sentenced to jail, rather than a diversion program or community corrections, the costs are cutting into any potential savings accrued by the state. So it's not yet clear whether local communities will receive money as a result of the prison closing to help fund their own treatment programs and special courts.
The DOC will conduct a cost analysis next March. Officials will then determine whether there's money left to give to counties.
In Marion County, Sheriff John Layton is pitching an expanded community corrections program as part of the solution. It costs only about $12 per inmate per day to serve a sentence or await trial on electronic monitoring, Layton said — significantly cheaper than housing them in jail, which he said costs the county $50 per inmate per day.
In the fall, Marion County received $1.1 million to expand its electronic monitoring program, hiring 11 new case managers to allow more inmates to fulfill pretrial or post-trial orders at home.
Still, the program could expand even more, potentially alleviating the jail's overcrowding issues.
Because electronic monitoring programs aren't limited by space, but rather by the number of case managers, they could always expand with more funding, said John Deiter, executive director of Marion County Community Corrections.
But Marion County faces an even bigger money problem. County leaders for years have considered building a new jail, having conducted countless studies and spent more than $16 million with still nothing to show for it — never mind the actual cost of building a jail.
The debate recently regained traction under Mayor Joe Hogsett. But with a number of hurdles and unknowns remaining, building a new jail, no matter how badly it might be needed, would be anything but simple.
Statewide, the picture seems more promising.
Lawmakers have allotted $55 million for grant programs for 2016 and 2017. More than half of that — $30 million — has been appropriated for Recovery Works, a program that connects people who are or have been charged with or convicted of a felony to providers of mental health and addictions treatment. Providers then submit claims through a voucher system for payment.
The investment helps close what has long been a gap in services for people in the criminal justice system, said Kevin Moore, director of the Family and Social Services Administration's Division of Mental Health and Addiction, which administers the program.
A little more than 2,600 felons have been referred to providers since last November, said Sara Cozad, assistant deputy director of adult services. The majority are low-level felons, although those charged with or convicted of more serious crimes also could qualify for the program.
The rest of the state money, $25 million, was made available to fund county programs and services.
One reality, however, is that those receiving treatment are not guaranteed to recover.
For one, Powell said, the vast majority of substance abuse programs have about a 10 percent success rate. The best programs — and there's only a handful of those in the state — succeed 40 percent of the time.
Treating addictions, in reality
Ashley Sorrel recalls the day she first went to Pathway to Recovery to begin treatment. She had just shot what would be her last dose of heroin. She was sinking low in her seat at a meeting, saying little.
An employee at Pathway knew she needed detox, so she helped her enroll at the Salvation Army Harbor Light detoxification program, which was the beginning of her sobriety.
Getting sober was difficult, Sorrel said, but navigating the legal system? Nearly impossible.
When Sorrel went into the detox program, authorities secured a warrant for her arrest because she had technically violated her home detention parameters, even though she was seeking help.
Then there is Danny Camacho, another recovering addict who works at Pathway with Sorrel. He was arrested in 2013 for stealing vodka from a Kroger grocery store.
"It was only because I couldn't get opiates," Camacho said. "I needed something."
On the day of his arrest, Camacho took his last drink. He went to meetings and completed community service ordered as terms of his probation. But a series of clerical errors and a switch in caseworkers, he said, meant that all his progress was erased. It mistakenly appeared to the court that he did not fulfill the terms of his probation.
He spent his two-year anniversary of sobriety in jail.
Now, Camacho and Sorrel work for the recovery center that helped them turn around their lives in the hopes that they can help someone else do the same.
Yet the two believe they kicked their addictions in spite of — not because of — the legal system.
"The system is made for you to fail," said Sandy Jeffers, executive director of Pathway to Recovery.
Even two years into the criminal justice reform, Jeffers said, a major problem remains: Offenders are not being connected to critical services. Often, they are left to fend for themselves and relapse because of frustration with the legal hurdles.
"There is no bridge between incarcerated offenders and service providers at all," Jeffers said. "They walk out of jail with no resources."
But that is what lawmakers and authorities throughout the state hope will change.
For Indiana to have the kind of criminal justice system that addresses the root cause of crime, there has to be a "shift in paradigm," a change in the way prosecutors, public defenders and judges think about criminal defendants, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, during a recent judicial summit in Indianapolis.
No longer should key players in the criminal justice system think about how they can catch people failing, said Landis, who's also a member of a committee that studies incarceration alternatives and funding for counties. Instead, they should think about how to help people find their way out of the criminal justice system — for good.
But funding programs is one thing; seeing results is another.
"I know a lot of folks in politics want to pass a law and immediately have a positive outcome," Powell said. "Well, it doesn't work that way."
For programs and services to continue and to achieve the long-term goal of reducing recidivism, a steady stream of funding — and likely more of it — will be necessary.
That means the next two years will be "make or break" for the criminal justice reform, the 2014 reform bill's author, Rep. Greg Steuerwald, said during a recent judicial summit at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
"We've set up the infrastructure to deal with these nonviolent offenders. We've done a good job of making necessary funding for these addiction and mental health services," Steuerwald said. "But it's just getting started. ... We're just getting to that point where we're actually starting these programs in earnest."
The Republican legislator from Avon said he's confident that state funding will continue.
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush also is optimistic. For the first time, she said, she's starting to see a lot more judges making sure that defendants are connected with mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
"We want to make sure the right people are in placement for the right period of time, for the right reasons," she said.
"But one branch of government can't do it alone."