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EDITORIAL

State shouldn't dump problems on its counties

Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 12:01 am

Handling of D felons amounts to an unfunded mandate.

It’s a sign of mismanagement bordering on incompetence when one government tries to solve a problem by merely passing it along to other governments. That’s what the state is doing as it wrestles with prison overcrowding, and the victims are Indiana’s 92 counties.

Overcrowding has been a concern for some time, and former Gov. Mitch Daniels pushed hard for changes to sentencing guidelines so more low-level criminals would be diverted to alternative punishments. They did that, but decided to throw in a tough-on-crime provision, too, ordering that inmates serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of just 50. Perversely, the prison population is likely to grow even more than it would have without the changes.

What to do, what to do? Finally, the General Assembly enacted a brilliant idea: Let’s just move the overcrowding from state prisons to county jails.

Beginning July 1, the Indiana Department of Corrections will no longer accept offenders convicted of D felonies and sentenced to 90 days or less. Beginning July 1 of next year, D-felony offenders sentenced to a year or less won’t be accepted. D felonies are lower-level crimes but include such offenses as assaults, drug offenses and property crimes. About 4,400 of the state’s 30,000 inmates are D felons.

Those offenders will stay in county jails, whether the counties are able to adequately handle the increase in inmates or not.

One problem will be cost. The state will save $12.5 million by 2020 because of the change, and it could decide to send some of it to counties. But that money wouldn’t cover all the costs related to a population increase, the need for more jailers, for example.

Then there’s the overcrowding, which is a concern in many counties. In Johnson County, for example, the inmate count is 321, just one shy of full capacity. Shelby County can house 203 and already has 196. Lawrence County has a capacity of 168 and a recent population of 175,

Indiana is a state not overly fond of home rule, but this was actually a pretty good year for local control. Allen County voters can have a referendum on county government structure, central Indiana voters can decide whether to fund mass transit expansion, and all 92 counties can decide whether to keep or eliminated the business personal property tax.

But the inmate transfer was a step back. It amounts to an unfunded mandate. Since the state complains all the time about getting those from the federal government, it’s unseemly that it has decided to send one to the counties.