Compared with other big counties, Lake, Porter have fewer inmates doing time
BY Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org January 22, 2012 9:00PM
Elijah Sloss of Gary tosses another bag of garbage headed for the Dumpster as he works with a work release group to clear debris from abandoned houses in the Aetna section of Gary, Ind. Tuesday January 17, 2012. Sloss was scheduled to finish his sentence the following day. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
By the numbers
According to the Indiana Department of Correction, Lake and Porter counties ranked relatively low in the number of inmates they sent to state prisons from 2008 to 2010 compared with other counties in the top 10 by population. Here are the number of inmates
1. Marion County — 4,211
2. Allen County — 1,010
3. Vandeburgh County — 666
4. St. Joseph County — 532
5. Madison County — 503
6. Wayne County — 468
7. Hamilton County — 436
8. Johnson County — 428
9. Lake County — 423
37. Porter County — 81
1. Marion County — 4,663
2. Allen County — 1,080
3. Vandeburgh County — 519
4. Wayne County — 510
5. Johnson County — 479
6. Lake County — 458
7. Madison County — 449
8. Hamilton County — 443
9. St. Joseph County — 434
46. Porter County — 66
1. Marion County — 4,824
2. Allen County — 870
3. Elkhart County — 523
4. Lake County — 501
5. Vandeburgh County — 441
6. Madison County — 410
7. Wayne County — 383
8. Johnson County — 348
9. Hamilton County — 326
51. Porter County — 47
Updated: February 25, 2012 8:07AM
Lake and Porter counties are two of the largest counties in the state, both ranking in the top 10 in population.
However, they both send a relatively small number of inmates to the Indiana Department of Correction compared with other, according to numbers from the department. In 2010, Lake County, the second largest county by population in the state, ranked ninth in the number of inmates, 423, it sent to the DOC, behind not only other large counties such as Marion and Allen but smaller ones as well, including Wayne County, home to Richmond.
The difference was even starker for Porter County, which ranks ninth overall for population. However, the county ranked 37th overall in 2010 for the number of inmates, 81, it sent to the DOC. That was actually an increase from 2008 and 2009, when the county ranked 46th and 51st, respectively.
No clear answer was available as to why Lake County sent half the inmates in 2010 that Allen County did and about one-eighth the inmates Marion County did. However, judges in both Lake and Porter counties contributed part of it to their strong reliance on community corrections programs, which keep defendants in their home counties as they go through rehabilitation programs.
Most of the gap came with inmates whose highest convicted sentence was a D felony. Porter County sent just 25 inmates with a D felony to the DOC in 2010, and Lake County sent 105. That’s compared with the 2,197 Class D felons Marion County sent, and the 590 inmates Allen County sent. Even Wayne County, whose entire population of about 69,000 people is smaller than the city of Gary, sent 216 more Class D felons to the DOC than Lake County did.
However, both Lake and Porter saw discrepancies in higher classes of felons. For instance, both Madison and Allen counties sent more Class C felons to the DOC than Lake County or Porter County did. Madison County is smaller than Porter County by about 33,000 people.
In fact, Johnson, Wayne and Madison counties, all of which have fewer residents than Porter County, sent more B, C and D felons to the DOC than Porter County. Johnson and Wayne both sent more A felons, too, which held true for 2008 and 2009 as well.
Porter County Judge Mary Harper said the county’s numbers aren’t surprising considering how much it relies on community corrections programs such as the drug court.
“I’m really proud of what we have,” Harper said.
Harper said that most of the county’s low-level felons — she estimated about 95 percent — come from drug-related crimes. The county has come to believe those people are better helped through local programs that focus on rehabilitation that also cost significantly less than what it costs to house someone at one of the state prisons. Harper said the court is required to give a housing estimate for each inmate it sends to the DOC. One inmate she recently sent will likely cost taxpayers more than $250,000 to house.
“I try to look at it as, is there a way we can add value to the system,” she said.
That’s why the county focuses on rehabilitating the offenders to cut on down recidivism rates, Harper said.
Lake County takes a similar approach, relying heavily on its Lake County Community Corrections program, Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. said. The county’s judges sent 427 defendants to the program in 2010 and 309 in 2009.
Stefaniak pointed to the problem with sending many of the D felons to a state prison: They’re often in for only a few months, which is too short a time for them to enter any rehabilitation program offered by the prison system.
In that case, they get nothing out of their sentence and no help to live a legal life in the future. He said Marion County is known for sending too many people to the DOC with a sentence of six months or less.
“People who are in there for a long time and have short sentences like that ... tend not to get any resources because of overcrowding issues,” Stefaniak said. “If your goal is to reduce recidivism, it just makes sense to us here that you ought to give them resources.”
The DOC itself supports the use of community corrections programs, said Douglas Garrison, spokesman for the department. The DOC has encouraged use od community corrections programs when it has been appropriate, he said.
“Some counties are getting that more than others,” Garrison said.
The DOC has taken steps to educate judges about the programs, he said, and to overcome attitudes toward community corrections programs as being safe. As the state is faced with housing more and more criminals, it’s evaluating whether it will have to build more prisons, at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayers.
“Do we need to build more prisons or do we need to be smarter about what we do?” Garrison said.
The state is seeing its prison population level off, however, which could point to more counties relying on local programs for offenders, he said. That follows data that shows Indiana ranks in the top 10 nationwide in the number of offenders who are on parole and probation, said Joseph Ferrandino, assistant professor of criminal justice at Indiana University Northwest.
Ferrandino said that because community corrections is at its core a local idea, programs will vary across the board depending on how much the local community buys into it. That said, he expects more and more communities to move toward using these programs instead of relying on prisons as states cut their budgets. Some programs have even been shown to work on what people would consider more violent offenders, such as people with domestic abuse or sexual crimes. In a way, these programs actually give states and communities more control over criminals, he said. For instance, many domestic violence offenders get off because their victim drops the charges. Ferrandino said the new community programs allow judges to retain control even in those situations.
Ferrandino said there aren’t many numbers to show whether these programs work at lowering recidivism rates, however, because they’re still so new. Lake County has just started to track its offenders, said Kellie Bittorf, executive director of LCCC. Even then, the numbers won’t be perfect because the staff doesn’t have access to criminal records in other counties, so they won’t know if one of their inmates is charged outside Lake County.
Although both Lake and Porter counties cite their community corrections programs as reasons for their low DOC rates, Allen County also says it favors these local programs. Allen County Judge Fran Gull said the criminal judges all look at using community programs first.
“We view the DOC for pretty much the low-level offenders as a last resort,” she said.
Allen County, which also has a drug court like Porter County, does give offenders the option of a community corrections programs or the state prison. Gull said that’s because if an offender doesn’t buy into rehabilitation, he’ll likely break the rules on purpose so he can get sent to prison. However, both Harper and Stefaniak said that most offenders who reached a plea agreement often can request what form of sentence they receive, whether it’s to remain in a local jail or go through the corrections programs. Both said the vast majority always pick the local programs.
Another possible explanation then for the differences between Allen and Lake counties is the number of criminal cases that get dismissed. Allen County dismissed just 184 cases in 2010, while Lake County dismissed 804 cases. Even Porter County, which is smaller in population than Allen County, dismissed 336 cases.
Getting a clear picture of the number of inmates compared to a county’s crime rate is difficult. Each county releases annual numbers showing the number of cases that ended in 2010, whether from plea agreements or jury trials. However, Judge Harper pointed out those numbers are confusing because a case might have started as Class D felony but the offender pleaded down to a misdemeanor. The numbers do show just how little Porter County relies on the DOC, however. In 2010, 1,261 felony cases ended either by trial or a plea agreement, yet the county sent just 81 people to a state prison. That’s compared with Wayne County, which ended 770 cases in 2010. Meanwhile, it sent 468, or 61 percent, of its felon offenders to the DOC. A Wayne County judge could not be reached for comment.