FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Friday, there were 31 federal inmates locked up at the Allen County Jail and 121 sentenced Level 6 felony offenders, two categories the Allen County Commissioners are focusing on to reduce the inmate jail population.

The 31 federal inmates are part of a “lucrative” annual contract with the U.S. Marshals worth $1 million, give or take, to the county’s bottom line.

There’s no such monetary benefit to house Level 6 felony offenders who used to serve their time at a state prison somewhere in Indiana until the state legislature decided in 2014 that Level 6 offenders were to serve that time in their local county jail.

That move is a major reason the jail is overcrowded and the legislation forced many counties to build new jails or additions to house the extra inmates.

That’s all on the table as Allen County officials work to meet a federal judge’s order to reduce the inmate population at the Allen County Jail eventually to 593, or 80% capacity. Friday, the Allen County Jail population was 803. The county also must provide recreation three times a week to inmates and hand over a plan to either build a new jail or make improvements to the old jail downtown, the judge ordered.

Earlier this week, the commissioners released a plan for LaGrange County to house up to 50 inmates in the jail there (and possibly Noble County, as well). They also recently canceled a contract with the U.S. Marshals which allowed those accused of federal crimes to be held at the jail.

Nelson Peters says the commissioners would ultimately like to renew the lucrative contract with the U.S. Marshalls to house federal inmates.

But County Commissioner Nelson Peters admitted that these are stop-gap measures at the weekly commissioners’ meeting Friday. The commissioners have every intention to renew the U.S. Marshals contract someday and once a new facility is built – expected to be completed in 2026 – the county will no longer have to ship inmates to other facilities.

“You hate to have to turn your back to money like that,” Peters said, referring to the “windfall” the federal money provides in funding the jail. “But when you are trying to get to where a federal judge is telling you to get to, you sort of have to pull out all the stops to get to where you need to be.”

The proposal to ship 50 inmates to the Lagrange County Jail, around 50 miles north of Fort Wayne, was solidified by an agreement signed by the sheriff and commissioners in October, an agreement that will be renewed automatically until one of the parties terminates it, the agreement says.

Cost of housing each inmate is at $60 a day, but that doesn’t include the cost of transporting the inmates who have court appearances and sometimes, medical appointments outside the jail nor the cost of staffing.

According to the justice study released last year by Elevatus Architecture, the firm responsible for the design of jails nationwide, Lagrange County Jail is one option, along with other nearby jails, for housing Allen County inmates.

However, to keep up a program of shipping county inmates elsewhere over the next 20 years, the cost would amount to $120 million, the study reported.

“As a matter of comparison, the cost for renting beds in neighboring counties, if available, would include not only the housing costs on a per bed per day basis, but also transportation costs needed to move inmates to and from the jail to the courts and other services needed by the inmate. Based on the forecast needs of beds over the next 20 years, a cost for housing these excess inmates NOT INCLUDING any transportation or staffing costs) would be nearly $120 million,” the reports say on page 19.  

The study forecast a need for up to 1,500 beds, primarily because the population of Allen County is also growing. The existing jail was built to accommodate around 732.

Lagrange County Jail

A county typically incarcerates about 0.4% of its population, the study said and with population growth projections, the need would be up to 1,680 beds by 2041.

The current number of Level 6 felony offenders won’t be sent to state prisons, if the state legislature reverses its decision in July. The offenders who will be sent outside Allen County will be newly sentenced, not the ones sitting in the Allen County Jail right now, Peters said. 

Peters and the other commissioners said at the meeting that building the jail is not a done deal.

“There might be alternatives to incarceration,” Peters said and the commissioners are looking to recoup funding that would be directed toward the mental health aspect of inmates.

The commissioners debate is “what is the right size and where does the facility belong,” Richard Beck said at the meeting. He blamed the state for the jails housing so many inmates with mental problems he estimated to be as high as 80%.

“The reason to move is to plan for the future,” Beck said. “We can’t do that on a postage stamp parcel of land that we have today,” referring to the three plus acres the downtown jail sits on at Clinton and Superior streets. “Riverfront development is not the driving force behind this. Doing the right thing is the driving force.”

The commissioners and sheriff will meet with Leichty in Fort Wayne June 16 to discuss the progress of meeting his demands.