Work-release program casualty of meeting jail mandate
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent May 14, 2014 7:54PM
Updated: June 17, 2014 2:09PM
CROWN POINT — The Lake County Sheriff’s Department work-release program has been defunded to pay for the jail hires necessary to keep the county from running afoul of a Department of Justice jail staffing mandate deadline.
The Lake County Council unanimously approved ending the work-release program and eliminating the 28 positions in the department effective June 16 in order to fund the hiring of 24 correctional officers and three mental health professionals for the jail at its meeting Tuesday.
If the positions hadn’t been funded, the DOJ said, it would file a motion to find the county in contempt of a court order requiring it to do so.
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said Wednesday the County Council had few options to find the funding for the jail hires.
“We had to come up with a solid way to meet the DOJ’s minimum requirements,” Bilski said.
The Indiana Department of Community Corrections has agreed to take on the 77 inmates in the sheriff’s work-release program. The 28 work-release employees whose positions have been eliminated will have the opportunity to apply for transfer to the jail or elsewhere within the sheriff’s department that may have open positions, Bilski said.
Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, who is the council’s representative for the jail, said Wednesday the move to eliminate the work-release program was a collaborative effort between the council and board of commissioners.
“We have a finite amount of money,” Dernulc said. “People are not real happy with the income tax as it is. We’re being asked to find more monies. I am dead set against any more taxes.”
While the move to end county work-release is not exactly what the sheriff wants, the sheriff will get the 24 corrections officers the DOJ is mandating, Dernulc said, adding transferring the work-release program to the state’s community corrections program will be net neutral for the county.
“It’s a win-win for our taxpayers … It’s not perfect,” Dernulc said.
John Bushemi, attorney for Sheriff John Buncich, said the sheriff does not support the solution. Buncich is in Washington, D.C., this week.
“The most significant harm from the yesterday’s decision to close the sheriff’s work-release program is the loss of jobs and benefits for the 28 county employee families that are going to be out of work,” Bushemi said.
Correctional officers are hired based on merit and physical ability, and many of the work-release employees are older and may not qualify.
He said work-release inmates have also been a source of maintenance work at the various county-owned properties and have been used by other municipalities as well. All will now have to find other workers to do the jobs.
The Lake County Jail has been under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice since 2011 following the settlement of a 2007 civil lawsuit filed by inmates claiming inhumane conditions and inadequate health care.
The DOJ outlined 99 deficiencies in that settlement with which the jail needs to comply. Last year the county hired 33 correctional officers to comply with the mandate.