The 2020 Jefferson County budget is about six-weeks old, but the impact of the increase in cases involving illegal drugs continues to rear its head in dollars and cents.
Sheriff David Thomas went before the county council Thursday night to ask for a transfer of funds to cover the additional expenses his department is incurring from housing inmates in facilities in other counties because of the overcrowding in the existing county jail. Thomas has regularly had to go before the council for several months as his expenses have grown with the arrests in Jefferson County.
“Almost every one is some kind of drug charge,” he told the council in response to a question, estimating that 85% to 90% of the arrests are drug-related with 85% to 90% of those arrests involving meth.
He said most of the inmates are there because of repeat offenses, failure to appear in other cases or are violent offenders.
Thomas said he has at this time about 135 inmates in the Jefferson County Jail, which was designed and built for 109.
There are another 67 inmates housed primarily in county jails in Crawford, Scott and Switzerland counties, he said. He explained to the council that he has worked to find the best rates and availability he can for housing outside of Jefferson County. He said daily charges for housing range from $35 to $37.50. He said he usually takes about 12 to 15 inmates a month to an Indiana Department of Corrections facility to serve longer sentences.
One bill Thomas received last month for housing inmates in another facility came to $44,555. Auditor Sherry Eblen told Thomas during the discussion that the sheriff’s budget was some $31,000 in the red at that time for the line item that covers housing outside the local jail. That does not mean the bills for the jail will not be paid, but it does require transfers of money from the county general fund to cover those costs, a task that the county council handles at almost every meeting.
It has not been unusual for the county jail in the last several months to have a total inmate number hovering between 190 and 200. In 2017 the county was cited by state examiners for its overcrowded jail and the resulting conditions and given a deadline to address the issue. The county council took action last year to purchase land, to fund a new jail and to add additional income taxes to cover the cost of building the jail. That jail is now projected to cost about $37 million. The process of designing the facility and hiring the contractors to build is underway but not expected to be completed in time for construction to begin before sometime in the first quarter of 2021.
Thomas told the council that he has been working to lower the numbers of inmates in the Jefferson County facility because of concerns for the safety of both inmates and jail personnel.
“Reduction in jail cuts down on jail fights,” Thomas told the council, noting that reduces the instances of injuries and even more charges.
The discussion for the council became whether to transfer only the amount of funds needed each month to cover the overage in expenses or to allocate a larger amount to try to cover a longer period. It was finally decided to transfer $250,000 to the sheriff’s department account and the council asked Thomas to come to each meeting to update them on the continuing costs.
The discussion about the pressure on the jail because of the increase in drug cases was preceded by a warning from another department that is a key part of the judicial process for offenders, although not funded by the county.
Amber Finnegan, who oversees the county Court Services office, warned the council that her office is in a financial crisis at the moment.
Community Corrections, which is a state-supervised program in the majority of Indiana counties, serves defendants in the judicial system as they make their way through to try to find ways to help them navigate the processes, avoid incarceration if possible, and not become repeat offenders.
The offices are funded by grants or through money obtained in fees assessed to defendants for the services of the office. The money is handled through the county auditor’s office but is not a part of the county budget.
In calendar year 2019, Jefferson County’s office, which is called Court Services, saw 1,232 clients.
The problem now is in their Project Income budget because clients are not paying the fees they are assessed for services, Finnegan explained, which means the office is without the income that funds significant expense categories, including the cost of electronic monitoring that enables a client to be free instead of incarcerated, the costs of drug screening, or training program manuals.
Finnegan warned the council the department is going to need some “long-term support” if the situation doesn’t change quickly.
In an interview Friday morning, Finnegan said that as of January 2020, the department had $13,000 in funds in its Project Income category. Its usual monthly cost for monitoring fees alone is $10,000 to $14,000.
As of December 2019, she said, the office had 221 clients who owed a total of $394,927.
She has begun trying to collect state income tax refunds from delinquent clients, an action that she said has resulted in threatening and unpleasant phone calls.
The growing problems related to drugs come up regularly at county meetings.
At a jail planning session in late January, Circuit Court Judge D.J. Mote put on the table the issue of in-house treatment.
“Our county is being ravaged by methampetamine,” he said.
Mote’s concern was underlined late last year when Jefferson County Prosecutor David Sutter told county council members 31 cases of possession of methamphetamine were handled by his office in 2014. That number rose to 204 by the end of 2018, he said.