Porter County Jail

Male inmates eat lunch recently at the Porter County Jail in Valparaiso.

VALPARAISO — Porter is one of 11 counties around the state taking part in a pilot program studying ways to improve the system of releasing nonviolent defendants from jail while they await trial.

In calling for the move, the Indiana Supreme Court said the prompt release of inmates who do not pose a threat to public safety is associated with fewer of them re-offending and the elimination of unnecessary spending from the over-utilization of local jail resources.

But the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council fears there is a rush to conclusions going on and is uncomfortable with an order that the new rules take effect in all courts at the start of 2018. The date has since been pushed back to January 2020.

"Where is the data and research that shows there's a systematic problem?" asked Council Executive Director David Powell.

Powell said his group supports the research, but calls for any changes to be held off until the facts are in. One assumption that has yet to be proven is whether early release will lead to a cost savings if the counties are left to come up with the funding necessary to assess and identify qualified inmates.

"There's a lot of hard work that needs to be done," he said.

Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said, "The pilot counties are compiling statistics to determine rates of re-offense and failure to appear on released defendants who are assessed versus those who are not."

This is being carried out using a risk assessment questionnaire provided by the state to evaluate inmates for potential pretrial release, Chief Public Defender Ken Elwood said.

A representative of Porter County PACT conducts the inmate interviews shortly after they arrive at the jail, and a public defender then appears alongside the low-risk defendants during their initial hearings to seek either affordable bonds or no bonds for those who don't have money to pay, he said. The decision is up to the judges.

The system will be put into effect only for inmates who don't bond out on their own, Elwood said.

Porter County Chief Probation Officer Stephen Meyer pointed out that each person arrested is considered innocent until proven otherwise.

Gensel said prosecutors across the state want to make sure that judges solicit their input in addition to applying assessment tools when making jail release decisions. He said the current cash and surety bond system and schedules will remain in effect.

Meyer said part of the struggle is that cash bonds are relied upon to cover various court-related costs, such as legal defense and user fees.

"We don't want to eliminate that," he said.

The county received nearly $57,000 in funding from the state, which is being used in large part to cover the cost of public defenders during this exploration process.

Per the parameters of the grant, Porter County is initially targeting defendants charged with nonviolent, felony-level offenses from the courtrooms of Superior Court Judges Bill Alexa, Julia Jent and David Chidester, Elwood said.

"I think Porter County is way ahead of the curve," Elwood said.

This effort, which kicked off March 1, formalizes the pretrial risk evaluation process the county has had in place for more than a year, he said.

"Pretrial release is on the forefront of everything in the criminal justice system," Meyer said.

The effort seeks to expand upon the traditional bail system, which says, "if you don't have money, you're not going to get out," he said. The decision to release someone from jail shifts more to the questions of their likelihood to appear for court hearings and their risk to re-offend.

"Shouldn't be based on money," Meyer said. "Should be based on risk assessment."

Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.