A recent study highlights the cycle of jail overcrowding and expansion in western Indiana.
The Vera Institute of Justice published the piece earlier this month, which focused on Vigo County. The study found that while jail populations are decreasing in urban areas, they are increasing in rural ones like Vigo County. Researchers say it’s not due to an increase in crime, but rather jail expansions and policy decisions.
“This is the result of policy choices. It's the result of choices about where to invest money first and in whom, and whether or not there is going to be a real intentional look at prevention, at diversion, at the kinds of resources and support that keep people out of the criminal legal system,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of the Vera Institute’s “In Our Backyards” initiative.
According to the study, the Vigo County Jail has been the subject of federal civil lawsuits due to jail overcrowding for more than two decades. Most people incarcerated in the jail had been arrested for low-level crimes, and many suffered from mental health and substance abuse issues.
“One of the main drivers of jail overcrowding is that many people are being held in jail not because of serious or violent offenses, but because of the criminalization of behaviors related to poverty, related to mental illness and related to substance use,” said Bea Halbach-Singh, a co-author of the study.
Instead of decreasing the jail population to stop the overcrowding, local leaders decided to build a new, larger jail and use a local income tax to fund it. This was met by pushback from members of the community who wanted more public dollars to be put into the county’s school system instead. Vigo County is the only county in Indiana to have adopted a tax like this to fund jails in recent years, the study says.
In 2018, the county council approved the use of a local income tax to pay for the new jail. By the time the newly expanded jail opens, it will already be 80% full, the study says.
Halbach-Singh said that once a jail is built, it often results in the county and its residents paying off the cost of constructing the new facility for decades.
“That comes at the expense of funding other services in the community that we know people desperately need,” Halbach-Singh said. “That includes mental and behavioral health programs and diversion programs and even investing in improved coordination of the local criminal legal system, which are all things that can help address some of the drivers of this jail overcrowding.”
Halbach-Singh hopes the study will bring the issue to light, and said it is not unique to Indiana.
“That's definitely part of the hope, shedding light that this type of outcome in Vigo County is not inevitable, that people have an opportunity to get involved in these local decisions that get made,” she said.
The Vera Institute of Justice researches criminal justice across the county with a data-driven focus.