Jail plan calls for speedier courts: Prosecutor still seeking more beds

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Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi’s colleagues say relieving jail overcrowding is a question of efficiency. Since jail is meant to be a temporary stop for alleged criminals, they argue, improvements in the process from booking to trial can largely eliminate the need for early release.

So why is Brizzi the lone wolf still clamoring to add more jail beds?

“Everyone says that you can’t build your way out. How do you know that?” asked Brizzi, a Republican. “We seem to be jumping to the conclusion that [efficiency alone] is going to solve the jail overcrowding problem. This seems to me like a very high-stakes gamble with people’s lives.”

Over the last six months, key stakeholders in the local criminal justice system have worked together on the Marion County Criminal Justice Planning Council to craft a plan to relieve jail overcrowding. Judges, prosecutors, cops, public defenders and evidence technicians all joined the discussion.

Their bipartisan recommendation: Spend at least $12 million immediately to speed up the courts.

It’s not just Democrats advocating the efficiency solution. Other local leaders of Brizzi’s own party have high hopes for it. Both sides stressed that, for once, politics was left at the door.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything work like this, where we’ve all sat down and said, ‘What’s best for the system?'” said Marion County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler, a Republican who led the MCCJPC subcommittee that developed the plan. “We’ve made a business case for this. We can see what the results will be.”

Everyone agrees on the extent of the problem. Marion County’s jail is so full, 1,584 accused criminals have been shown the door since the start of 2005 alone. The police arrest them faster than the system can process them. The jail’s 1,135 beds are simply not enough to lock up everyone while they await trial.

At the current pace, Marion County will be forced to release 3,168 accused criminals this year, a level 59 percent higher than in 2004. Law enforcement officials blame the revolving door of early release for a 15-percent increase in property crime since 2002. Even worse, accused criminals released early are sometimes later charged with violent crimes-including murder.

“Spend some time with police officers on the street; they’ll tell you the bad guys are laughing at them,” Brizzi said.

The emergency protocol for early release starts with arrestees judged the lowest risk. But Brizzi is quick to point out how odious and shocking even socalled low-level crimes can be. They’re not just about stolen car stereos; they often involve domestic abuse or grotesque animal cruelty.

Brizzi said he has no desire to be an obstructionist. That’s why he ultimately joined the rest of the study committee in endorsing its jail overcrowding plan. His rationale: It won’t harm things, and it might do some good. He just doesn’t expect as much from it as his colleagues do.

“My concern is, we were creating an unrealistic expectation in the public that this will prevent all the bad guys from being released from the jail early,” he said. “I don’t think it will.”

Brizzi’s colleagues on the council aren’t calling their plan a panacea, either. But the other members think this is the best first step. The study committee unanimously advocated a series of changes to move accused offenders through the court docket quickly. They include creation of a transcription unit, speeding up evidence processing, enlarging courtroom capacity, and increasing attorneys’ salaries to reduce turnover in the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices.

“I don’t think this is just a shot in the dark,” said Marion County Superior Court Presiding Judge Cale Bradford, who leads the study council. “Any of this is educated guesswork. But all the people who put it together are knowledgeable. I expect to see some results.”

What’s more, building new jail space wasn’t a realistic option. The recent increase in the local county option income tax, or COIT, will provide $12 million to $15 million to underwrite the jail overcrowding relief plan. The capital cost of altering three floors for new jail beds at the Arrestee Processing Center was $20 million. And that doesn’t include the future cost of their operation.

“Every place that’s tried to build their way out of a jail overcrowding problem has not succeeded,” Bradford said.

Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, said his opinion was similar to Brizzi’s, until he studied the problem.

“I thought exactly the same thing when I got into this. It’s the simple answer. If you don’t have enough jail space, you must need more jail beds,” Peterson said. “You know what? It doesn’t work. The issue is how long people stay, not the number of jail beds.”

Marion County’s jail-bed capacity clearly depends on its ability to manage its resources. About 30,000 people are booked into the jail annually. If slow trials forced them all to stay a whole year, the county would need 30,000 jail beds, Peterson said. If each of their trials could somehow be turned around in a day, just 82 beds would be necessary.

The goal should be to speed the innocent home, Peterson said. And the rest should start serving their sentences in the penal system.

“The state prison is where these people ought to be if they’re guilty,” he said. “The quicker we can get them there, the sooner justice will be done and the less risk to innocent people on our streets.”

Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson, a Democrat, likens the problem to a clogged funnel, with the jail as its spigot.

“It’s not about beds; it’s not about buildings. It’s about the funnel system. If you keep putting things in the top of the funnel, and it’s a small opening at the bottom, it’s going to overflow,” Anderson said. “Once we get the bottleneck opened up, we’ll be in a better position before we talk about building and all those other things.”

But Brizzi still has questions. He said a large proportion of the 30,000 people booked annually never spend a night in jail. Many are released almost immediately on their own recognizance. He said more study is needed to determine exactly which types of offenders move slowly through the system.

And in the meantime, Brizzi wants to see efforts made toward increasing bed capacity. Some say his position is staked out in anticipation of the 2006 prosecutor’s race. But Brizzi insists it’s a matter of principle-that’s why he’s willing to question his fellow Republicans.

“The election is 16 months away,” he said. “Next year, we’ll know if this [efficiency plan] ultimately solves the jail overcrowding problem.”

Bradford said he respects Brizzi’s position, but it’s long past time for action on jail overcrowding.

“This is not going to eliminate the problem. It’s a great start. We moved from doing nothing to raising money to allocating it in a bipartisan fashion to addressing those problems,” he said. “Talk without action is like a rowboat without oars. It goes nowhere. Now we’re finally putting oars on and heading upstream.”

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