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Indiana makes it hard for the public to know how much its local jails cost, new study says

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(WFIU/WTIU)
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It costs at least $240 million a year to keep people locked up in local jails in Indiana, with some counties spending around a quarter of their yearly budget on incarceration.

It costs at least $240 million a year to keep people locked up in local jails in Indiana, with some counties spending around a quarter of their yearly budget on incarceration. That’s according to a new study from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

And that number is likely much, much larger.

The Vera Institute wasn’t able to get data from 18 of Indiana’s local jails, including the state’s largest, in Elkhart and Marion counties. But more than that, research associate Bea Halbach-Singh said Indiana makes it difficult for the public to know how much it’s costing them to keep people locked up.

“The data sources available in Indiana don’t provide a way to disentangle how much spending from different types of funds is actually allocated towards jails every year," Halbach-Singh said. "And overall, this lack of transparency makes it almost impossible to easily understand how much local jails in Indiana cost and how this has changed over time.”

For instance, state law allows counties to use some local income tax revenues for public safety. Some counties use that money for their local jails. But Halbach-Singh said it's impossible to know how much of those tax dollars go to jails versus other public safety priorities – so the Vera Institute didn't use those funding sources in its study.

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The Vera Institute also advocates for reducing jail populations in targeted ways. Vera's In Our Backyards Initiative director Jasmine Heiss said that includes finding alternatives for people with substance use disorders.

“People who are held because they have a substance use disorder or struggle with substance use in some way are actually more vulnerable to overdose after they’re released from jail because, very often, they lack that connection to community-based care and services," Heiss said.

Vera also recommends individualized bail hearings, as opposed to a set bail schedule for different charges. In Our Backyards Initiative associate director Monica Smith said Indiana, like many states, often has money bail amounts set too high, which she said undermines the right to bail in the Indiana Constitution and the presumption of innocence.

"Simply put, they are being held in jails because they cannot afford their freedom," Smith said.

The Vera study also estimates how much counties can save by reducing their jail population. For instance, Vigo County spends about a quarter of its budget each year on jail. It could save more than $400,000 a year by reducing its jail population by just 30 people.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.