FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — The Allen County Commissioners have done everything they can to reduce the inmate jail population and abide by a federal judge’s order that the jail offer more recreation, provide more staffing and a safer environment.
Now it’s up to the judiciary system to help divert more inmates to reduce the population to 732, and eventually to 80% capacity or 592, they say.
The magic numbers are central to this chess game where the fate of inmates depends on their state and county masters.
At the weekly legislative meeting, Commissioner Richard Beck said, by statute, the commissioners’ obligation is to establish and maintain a jail. Allen County sheriffs are obligated to run the jail, including staffing.
‘We have no true role’
“We have no true role in the arrests, incarceration, the defense, anything that has anything to do with that individual. We have no role in that whatsoever,” Beck said.
Therese Brown, the other commissioner present at the meeting, said commissioners “will continue a dialogue with local judiciary and justice partners on how individuals are charged, whether it’s Level 6 felons (and ) above or misdemeanors,” adding that federal judge Damon R. Leichty is the one who “holds the cards in this equation.”
The commissioners revoked a $1 million contract with the U.S. marshalls to house federal inmates and hope to start sending Level 6 felons to prison, a reversal of 2014 state legislation that mandated Level 6 felons be held in county jails, in the hopes that that they’d be better served in community corrections. The state legislation caused jail populations across the state to swell.
The commissioners also renewed a contract with Lagrange County to ship inmates to the county jail at a cost of $60 a day to house them. That cost does not cover transportation and staffing costs.
Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux and Deputy Chief Troy Hershberger have both said that with the contract’s stipulation, the only inmates that qualify to be moved are the jail trustees, the inmates who work in the kitchen, laundry and other jail areas.
On March 31, Leichty sided with the ACLU and inmates, determining that the jail was unsafe and conditions were inhumane. Leichty gave the sheriff and commissioners 45 days to reduce the inmate population, provide recreation at least three times a week, report on physical attacks between inmates and inmates and staff and add sufficient staff to keep it safe, among other demands. Leichty also asked for plans to build a new jail, or an addition.
The commissioners and the sheriff are due to meet with Leichty here in Fort Wayne June 16 to discuss progress in meeting his demands.
Leichty sued the two entities that are normally sued in these cases because the prosecutors and the judiciary enjoy state immunity, local officials say. But prosecutors and judges, along with police officers, are the ones who make the arrests, charge individuals and sentence them, Beck and others have said.
WANE-TV contacted the judiciary and the Allen County Prosecutor asking if any changes to policy have been discussed that would help reduce the inmate population.
Allen Circuit Court Judge Wendy Davis said in an email that the judges of Allen County “will continue to sentence defendants pursuant to Indiana law.”
She pointed to alternative sentencing options available in the county: Allen County Community Corrections residential services and home detention, Veterans Court, Restoration/mental health court, OVWI Court, Drug and Veterans Court, Re-entry Court and Family Recovery courts.
Davis, in a bulk email which included Allen County judges, Kim Churchward, Community Corrections director, and Allen County Probation chief, Eric Zimmerman, said if the alternative sentencing didn’t exist “the number of inmates in the jail would be closer to 1,000 than 800.”
Allen County Prosecutor response
The Allen County Prosecutor’s Office through its spokesperson, Robyn Niedzwiecki, said it was evaluating this situation and working closely with the commissioners and the sheriff to “ensure compliance with federal court orders and continue to protect the citizens of this community.”
Gladieux said a couple of weeks ago he had the numbers down to 740, eight more than Leichty said was the maximum number he’ll accept.
He was able to ship out 14 federal inmates and 28 county offenders to the Indiana Department of Corrections, double the number IDOC normally takes, Gladieux said.
But the numbers climbed up quickly.
‘Everyone has to do something’
“Everyone has to do something. The courts aren’t doing anything and they’re the ones who can do the most,” Gladieux said. He suggests suspending Re-entry Court which allows state inmates to return earlier into community corrections because those offenders often end up at the jail on violations.
Gladieux would rather see the numerous Level 6 felons who are already sentenced be housed at the Communication Corrections’ Venture Lane facility where he originally planned to place them to reduce the inmate population. However, he was forced to close his work release program after the Allen County judicial system denied nearly 80 applications between November 2019 and May 2020, thereby putting an end to the program.
Friday, the Allen County Jail had 771 inmates, down from the typical 800 inmates, but the probation violators and sentenced Level 6 felons were about the same number they usually are. There were 33 federal inmates.
There were nine circuit court probation violators, 18 community corrections violators, 164 probation violators and 123 sentenced Level 6 felony offenders.
Allen County leads the state in holding Level 6 felons
According to data on IDOC’s website, Allen County leads the state in sentenced Level 6 felony offenders, the very population that is supposed to be in some kind of community corrections program, per the state legislation.
Beck says when he meets with the federal Judge in June, he will tell him that the commissioners “have done everything we can do within our authority to reduce that population in the jail.
“Again, our hands are tied. By statue, we are limited to what we can do. We hope to impress upon the judge that we have done everything statutorily that we can do to reduce that count.”