TERRE HAUTE —
A second arrest for driving while intoxicated landed Wimberly Tyler in the Vigo County jail last September, looking at a Class D felony charge and up to three years behind bars.
But rather than being just another warm body warehoused in state prison at taxpayers’ expense, Tyler is working and paying for his own incarceration. He has been assigned to the work-release program through Vigo County Community Corrections, and he holds a 30- to 40-hour a week job at a local restaurant in Terre Haute.
“It’s given me a chance to save up money and get back into the community,” Tyler said of his pre-trial placement in the program. “It’s a lot better than going to prison.”
Community corrections is a broad term for the local corrections/criminal justice system that provides effective alternatives to imprisonment at the state level.
Local programs are operated as independent county agencies — some housed in a facility separate from the county jail, others operated on contract with local office oversight.
The Indiana Department of Correction encourages counties to initiate their own programs, and offers grant funding to keep the costs off local taxpayers. While 78 of Indiana’s 92 counties now have some form of community corrections, another five counties are talking to the DOC about setting up a local program, according to Mike Lloyd, director of the DOC’s community corrections and community transition programs.
“It’s just good common sense,” Lloyd said of having monitored, rehabilitative incarceration in the communities where offenders live. “It doesn’t serve the taxpayers any purpose to put low-level offenders into a DOC facility where there’s no opportunity to get support or treatment.”
The dynamics of a state prison sentence versus local incarceration placement is layered by many considerations, not the least of which is a prison system crowded with D felony offenders.
In smaller counties such as Putnam, which does not have a jail overcrowding issue, community corrections is used by the justice system as an appropriate way to monitor offenders.
Putnam County uses electronic monitoring, or “ankle bracelets,” to keep tabs on its pre-trial defendants or convicted offenders through either radio frequencies or more enhanced GPS tracking. The fees paid are on a sliding scale based on income. The system also has in-home alcohol monitoring with facial recognition technology to make sure participants are obeying the rules of the program.
Class D felons are part of the target population for community corrections, said Jamie France, director of the Putnam County program, which averages around 50 participants at a time. France said he agrees with corrections experts that rehabilitating defendants’ behavior in their own community is more successful than sending a person off to prison for a short sentence. Putnam County sent 74 D felons to the DOC during a 12-month period ending in August, slightly more than Vigo’s 70 admissions.
Hamilton County, north of metropolitan Indianapolis, sent 388 Class D felons to a state prison during that same time frame, ranking it fourth behind Marion, Allen and Vanderburgh counties for D felony prison admissions.
Ralph Watson, head of the Hamilton County Community Corrections program, said many of his county’s D felons already have failed in community-based programs, so the last option is to send those people to a state prison.
Hamilton County has some unique challenges related to criminal sentencing, according to Watson. Major roadways that criss-cross the county and Hamilton’s destination sites attract people — including some who commit crimes — from around the state and the Midwest. When arrests are made, some defendants have no ties to the community, making participation in a local corrections program problematic.
“A percentage of those individuals have criminal activity,” Watson said of passers-through, “and it is a challenge to serve them if they live elsewhere.”
Hamilton County has a 2-year-old community corrections facility with bed space for 200.
“Our whole goal is to keep people out of county jails and the DOC,” Watson said.
The DOC’s Lloyd appreciates such efforts by counties.
When the Indiana General Assembly initiated the Community Corrections Grant Act in 1981, three counties were assisted by state grants totaling $250,000. The program has grown steadily since then, and Lloyd said he is in talks with leaders in Carroll, Martin, Jennings, Ripley and Rush counties to get programs off the ground there.
The reluctance of some counties to start the program may rest with local officials hesitant to accept money from the state, which then has oversight of how a program operates, Lloyd said. And there is fear that the state could withdraw its funding once a county has taken on the obligation of providing the service.
But the benefits to the county are many, Lloyd said, pointing to the employment opportunities at a local corrections program, which also help transition offenders returning to their home communities after a prison stay.
Prison for a low-level offender, such as a habitual traffic violator or a person who writes bad checks or commits petty thefts, is too often a training ground to create a more serious felon, Lloyd said. The DOC offers no rehabilitative programming for people who have a sentence of a few months, not years, because there is not enough time to get the offender through the program.
State Rep. Ralph Foley, R-Martinsville, said legislators are concerned about the DOC population numbers and the cost to taxpayers, so legislative committees have been evaluating the criminal code.
The DOC admits 18,000 offenders each year, Foley said, and 55 percent of those are D felons. The overwhelming majority have less than a year of prison time to serve, he said, and that creates a revolving door for the DOC.
A better alternative, he said, is an evidence-based program such as alcohol and drug programs or anger management classes, that can measure success.
“A huge component of that is community corrections,” Foley said of the evidence-based programs.
Getting the funding to encourage counties to set up that kind of local corrections system is tricky in a non-budget year, Foley said of the 2012 legislative session, and that could mean transferring funds allocated elsewhere, he said.
“We’ve got to start looking at this problem a little differently…,” Foley said. “The driver here is to change behavior for the benefit of public safety and public security in general. It is a seed change. People can change. We need to take a better approach in how to deal with these offenders.”
In a community corrections program, the most common elements are work-release, home detention with electronic monitoring, day reporting, forensic diversion, community service restitution, work crew and juvenile alternatives. Program components can vary county to county throughout the state.
Vigo County, for instance, offers work-release, electronic monitoring and community service, but ended its day reporting program. Potential participants must be evaluated and be deemed appropriate for the program, and at low risk of committing a more serious crime. Placement must be approved by the prosecutor’s office and the court where the defendant’s case is assigned.
Vigo County’s work-release program had 255 participants from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011. For the coming fiscal year, that number will be much higher because of increased utilization of the program by the county prosecutor and court system. And that has positively affected inmate population at the Vigo County jail, where Sheriff Greg Ewing has noted a reduction in his daily census.
Despite a court-mandated limit of 268 inmates, the jail population had regularly run in the 280s and 290s in recent years, exceeding the 300 mark at times in 2010. But this past March, the county started utilizing the community corrections more for pre-trial placement.
“Since they have been utilizing the community corrections program to its full potential, we are at or below capacity,” Ewing said of his jail. “Our limit is 268, and we have been running at 249 or 250. We can manage to stay right at capacity. It has had a huge impact.”
Vigo County operates a multi-tiered program that many in the state see as a successful model of keeping offenders in their home communities. The program started locally in 1990, and grew when federal grant money was used to build a 135-bed facility.
While not wearing a prison uniform, defendant Tyler is far from having freedom. He lives at the county’s community corrections facility in a dorm with dozens of others assigned to the program. He pays $91 a week to be on work-release, and must pay for his own meals. He submits to alcohol and drug tests each time he re-enters the facility after work or a court-approved appointment. He also participates in educational and counseling programs to help him overcome the issues that got him arrested in the first place.
“He’s exactly the type of guy who should be in here,” Bill Watson said of Tyler. “It makes more sense for him to be here than in the jail.”
Watson is the director of Vigo County Community Corrections, as well as president of the Indiana Community Corrections Association. He regularly deals with locally based corrections programs around the state, and is an advocate for keeping appropriate non-violent, low-level offenders in their communities while giving them the life skills to make better decisions.
Lora Mundell recently was released from Vigo County Community Corrections after successfully serving her sentence. The skills she learned while there have paid off in a job and a drug-free future.
“It’s an awesome place. It keeps you on track and it makes you think twice,” Mundell said.
Mundell was assigned to community corrections as part of her sentencing from a 2009 arrest in Vigo County. She transitioned from the county jail to the work-release program, and because of her success, was moved to in-home detention and electronic monitoring.
“It seems like a long road, but it wasn’t,” Mundell said recently after completing five months of home monitoring.
A local fast-food restaurant hired her as a work-release employee, and she is now a manager in training.
The community corrections staff wants to see the inmates succeed, she said. “They treat you like human beings.”
For instance, when Mundell was about to become a grandmother, the staff kept in contact with the hospital to give her updates on the birth process. The day after her grandchild was born, Mundell was allowed to visit the hospital to see the baby.
She has now rebuilt her family network and has contact with her two adult children and her grandchildren.
“I’ve got my family and I’ve got my life back,” she said. “I’m grateful and thankful for community corrections. They helped me turn my life around.”
While Mundell is a success story, community-based corrections isn’t for every offender.
“The reality is,” Vigo County’s Watson noted, “some need to go to prison.”
Lisa Trigg is a reporter with the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, a CNHI newspaper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.