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Lake sheriff unhappy over  loss of work-release unit

Work release participants sort   fold laundry destined for work release personnel or The Lake County Jail May 17

Work release participants sort & fold laundry destined for the work release personnel or The Lake County Jail on May 17, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 20, 2014 4:46PM



Eliminating the Lake County sheriff’s work-release program to afford new guards at the county jail may look good on paper, but Sheriff John Buncich said the numbers may not add up as expected.

Buncich said he fears that county officials have not considered the full financial impact of ending the work-release program when making their decision. The county and its municipalities benefit from the free labor that inmates provide for certain menial work.

His concerns stem from a decision last week by county council members to end the 19-year-old program and eliminate 28 of 31 jobs to pay for the 24 guards and three mental health professionals that must be hired for the jail under a U.S. Justice Department mandate.

The plan, effective June 16, transfers the 70-plus inmates in the sheriff’s program to Lake County Community Corrections, an Indiana Department of Corrections alternative sentencing program. Eliminating the county program frees up close to $2 million to pay for the employees required at the jail.

County Commissioner Gerry Schueb, D-Crown Point, said the commissioners support the council’s action, adding that a plan to consolidate the county program into the state’s had been in the works privately for some time as officials grappled with ways to comply with the federal mandate.

“It had to be done. We had no choice. This was not done overnight,” Schueb said. “It’s a done deal. At our meeting we will ratify it. We are not going to veto that thing. It is in effect.”

Buncich said he’s frustrated that council members and commissioners left him out of the discussion about the program’s future.

“It’s a serious setback. It really is,” he said.

Based on figures provided by the sheriff’s department, the men’s work-release unit worked 156,923 hours in 2013 on public service projects throughout the county. Based on a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, those man-hours were worth more than $1.2 million.

So far in 2014, the program has provided 59,860 hours for about $466,465. The women’s unit added another 9,844 work hours in 2013 worth $71,369, and so far this year has worked 1,833 hours for $13,289.

About 50 percent of the work-release inmates are assigned to county details, and 25 percent of an employed inmate’s gross income is returned to the county general fund. In 2013, that figure was $138,508.

The sheriff’s department relies heavily on the work-release inmates to staff its services. In 2013, work-release inmates worked 23,360 hours in animal control and 14,976 hours in the jail laundry.

The sheriff’s program also provides road crews for towns, cities and the county’s unincorporated area as well as for Indiana State Police. The county coroner’s office also used 15,600 work-release man hours in 2013.

Merrillville Town Council president Carol Miano, D-3, said she was shocked and saddened to hear that the work-release program would be ending. Miano said Merrillville used the inmates last year to remove trash, especially along streets, and again this spring after the mounds of snow melted.

“I really hate to see it end,” she said, because the program helped the town save tax dollars it did not have to spend on cleaning up the streets.

“This is going to affect the town of Merrillville terribly.”

Schueb said there will be some minor adjustments in combining the county and state programs, but judges will still be able to sentence people to work release and inmates will still help the county with animal control and at the jail laundry.

“The only thing that changes is the sheriff can now concentrate on the jail,” Schueb said.

Kellie Bittorf, executive director of Lake County Community Corrections, said taking on Lake County’s inmates will not be a significant change for the operation. She said the main differences between the programs are that the county work-release program accepted those convicted of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies while the state program uses only the latter.

Bittorf said Lake County Community Corrections has been looking to expand to misdemeanor offenders, and the consolidation will give it the opportunity to do so.

She said community corrections is also looking for new partnerships where inmates can perform public service work in several communities.

Bittorf said county officials did ask if the program would be able to continue providing laundry services at the jail, and “that’s something we can certainly look at taking over.”



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