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Porter County Courthouse

The Porter County Courthouse as viewed from the southwest corner of the courthouse square in downtown Valparaiso.

VALPARAISO — A man arrested last week on an accusation of driving while intoxicated was unable to come up with the standard $800 bond needed to leave jail while his case proceeds, according to attorney Katrina Spence-Smock.

But a new program — being tested in Porter County and set to go statewide at the start of next year — allowed the man, who is a veteran with a job and no prior criminal history, to leave jail after his bond was reduced to $250, Spence-Smock said.

The state's pretrial release program is part of a nationwide effort to reduce legal disparities that allow those with money to bond out of jail, while leaving those with fewer resources to linger behind bars where their lives can fall apart and their chances of reoffending increase, Porter County Chief Adult Probation Officer Melanie Golumbeck said.

The program — which is being piloted in Porter, Starke, St. Joseph and eight other counties in Indiana — assesses inmates at the jail who are unable to post bond to determine the likelihood they will return to court for hearings and reoffend during the pretrial period, she said.

The assessments take place within 24 hours of arrest in most cases, Porter County Pretrial Supervisor Douglas Lang said.

Assessors with Porter County PACT assign risk scores based on individuals' criminal history and results of the Indiana Risk Assessment System-Pretrial Assessment Tool, Golumbeck said.

The scores are then provided to judges to be used in evaluating whether to reduce bond or allow defendants to be released on their own recognizance, she said. Each defendant is represented during the initial/bond hearing by a public defender.

"We're not just arbitrarily releasing people willy-nilly," Golumbeck said.

Porter County implemented the program in March 2017 and conducted about 600 assessments during each of the first two years, she said. The program has been expanded from felony cases to include misdemeanors, and the assessment numbers have increased to 390 assessments as of June.

The results of the assessment also are used to determine if participants need supervision during their pretrial release and, if so, what programs should be required, Golumbeck said.

In one case, a man charged with drunken driving scored as a high risk of failing to appear for hearings and/or reoffend while out on pretrial release, Lang said. The judge opted not to reduce the bond at first.

But after spending 97 days in jail, the man was released on his own recognizance, was required to check in weekly and was subject to random drug and alcohol tests.

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He went on to gain employment and successfully complete the pretrial program without any violations, Lang said.

Some 250 people currently are on supervision, which is 100 more than a year earlier, he said.

Hoping to encourage appearances in court, pretrial program participants receive text messages to their cell phones five days and one day ahead of hearings, reminding them of their obligations to show up, Golumbeck said.

"So that's another tool being used to try to reduce failure to appear," she said.

Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clymer, whose courtroom is one of three in the county targeted by the pilot program, said, "The concern of each judge is public safety — period."

"If an arrestee has had an evidence-based risk assessment and is not a flight risk or danger to anyone, pretrial release conditions can be imposed specifically for each arrestee, such as drug testing and evaluation as well as periodic meetings with pretrial release officers," he said. "This is consistent with the right to bail and the presumption of innocence while simultaneously protecting the public."

Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds, who has been involved in the program from the start, said while some of his peers across the state may see an effort like this as being soft on crime, he doesn't agree.

A key element to public safety is the supervision and services participants receive while on pretrial release, he said.

"So consequently it is making our county safer," he said.

Porter County mirrors national statistics, which show between 1% and 3% of pretrial release participants fail to appear for court hearings and just 10% to 12% are rearrested as their cases are pending, Golumbeck said.

Reynolds said the effort is contributing to a reduction in the number of inmates at the county jail at a time when other counties are facing problems with overcrowding.

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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.