Short-term offenders are strangling Indiana's prison system, according to Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Edwin Buss.
More than 19,300 short-term offenders shuffled in and out of state prison facilities between October 2008 and March 2010, DOC records show. Short-term offenders are those sentenced to a year or less behind bars.
It cost the DOC more than $189 million to house those inmates, assuming they stayed an average of six months, officials said. Some offenders served as little as two weeks, while others spent up to a year in the state's custody.
Buss said by the time some inmates are transferred from the county jail and transported to a prison facility, it is time for them to be released. Their transfer is a waste of taxpayers' money and takes up needed space, he added.
"It's literally choking the system," Buss said. "It's a useless exercise in terms of its contributions to the justice system."
County-level judges and prosecutors agree. But they all contend every case is different and alternative sentencing programs like work release, home detention and probation aren't appropriate for some offenders.
Buss said he suspects some counties are pushing short-term offenders onto the state system to save money at the county level. He described one case where a man transferred to state prison needed immediate "life and death" surgery.
"I'm very suspicious that he would come to us in 14 days and need that kind of medical care right away," Buss said.
He said counties need to keep low-risk, nonviolent offenders close to home, where he believes they would be less likely to reoffend.
"Sending them all over the state is exactly the wrong thing to do," Buss added.
Buss said Marion, Hamilton, Hendricks and Wabash counties send the highest numbers of short-term offenders to the DOC. Lake and LaPorte counties send relatively few, he added. Porter County is somewhere in the middle.
About 4.6 percent of offenders sentenced in Lake County are serving less than two years in state prison, compared to about 14.6 percent from Marion County, data show.
Marion Criminal Court Judge Marc Rothenberg said he is aware of the DOC's prison population problem and always considers placing offenders in alternative programs first. But when the crime or offender's history warrants incarceration, he said he never sends them to the county jail.
"We have a conflict," he said. "Our conflict is we have an overcrowded jail here, too. When someone is sentenced to a felony, keeping them in the Marion County jail is not what's preferable. ... The jail, really, is a place to keep people while they await trial."
Kevin Murray, counsel for Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson, said Marion County stabilized its jail population after 35 years of litigation in federal court and mandated capacity caps. He said there is little space to spare.
"If someone is sentenced to go to the DOC, they need to go to the DOC," Murray said. "The sheriff gets them there as quickly as possible."
But Murray acknowledges it does not make sense to transfer inmates who have just days or weeks left to serve. He said he has not been contacted by the DOC, but would "welcome the conversation."
Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. said the alternative sentencing programs help low-risk offenders rebuild their lives more than locking them up.
"It makes sense to help people convicted of crimes become productive on the front end with resources, as opposed to just sending them away to prison unless the situation warrants it," he said. "They're coming back to our community anyway."
But a judge doesn't always decide where a defendant will serve his or her time.
Prosecutors and public defenders often negotiate plea agreements that dictate the sentence an offender will serve. Buss said 80 percent of all commitments are the result of plea agreements.
David Wyser, chief trial deputy with the Marion County prosecutor's office, said alternative sentences don't fit certain crimes or repeat offenders.
Wayne Criminal Court Judge Darrin Dolehanty said his court uses home detention and probation extensively, but he does not feel it is appropriate to alter what the prosecutor and defense agreed upon, if it is reasonable.
"Are you going too far to address the concerns of the local jail to not to accept what would otherwise be a reasonable plea agreement?" he asked. "You always have to wonder if you're overstepping your bounds there."
Kathryn Dolan, spokeswoman for the Indiana Supreme Court, said part of the problem is the antiquated tools used to assess offenders for alternative sentencing programs. Indiana is implementing new tools to better evaluate juvenile and adult offenders, she added.
"We can use sociology and criminology to assess risk with far more precision," Dolan said. "We want to get it right."
David Wyser suggested the DOC ask the Legislature to change the statute if it wants to standardize how short-term offenders are handled.
"Otherwise you have 92 different counties and 92 different sheriffs using any type of discretion and agreements they want," he said.
State Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, is on a criminal code commission to review the state's justice system. She said she will suggest giving judges more discretion in sentencing and wants to "clear some of this mess up in the next few years."
Average incarceration rates per 10,000 residents
Lake County: 39.38
Marion County: 108.05
Average sentence length
DOC average: 19.01 years
Lake County: 29.90 years
Marion County: 21.33 years
Source: Indiana Department of Correction records for inmates in state prison system. Information accurate as of Dec. 31, 2009.