More inmates may be going home before trial

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David chatting with Porter County Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper.

An estimated 85 percent of people in jails in Indiana awaiting trial -- and many can't make bail to get out of jail while their cases proceed, state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford.

He believes this approach is unfair to defendants who often spend more time behind bars waiting for dispositions of their case than they would if found guilty, he said.

It also costs taxpayers a lot of money to cover incarceration costs and fuels existing problems with jail overcrowding, Steele said.

"It's not equal justice under the law," he said, comparing the situation to those who can afford to post bond.

Steele, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is in his final term in office. He wants legislation to require judges to release, on their own recognizance, most nonviolent defendants held in jail on misdemeanor and low level felony charges.

"I'm going to build a fire with it," he said.

Porter Circuit Judge Mary Harper has long argued in favor of cash bonds over surety bonds paid to a bondsman. She said the benefit of cash bonds is there is money left over at the conclusion of a case to pay court costs, fees and other obligations.

Having money available enables a defendant to hire an attorney, as opposed to receiving a random public defender, she said. This brings greater equality to the criminal justice system.

"It really helps people to hire their own attorney," Harper said.

Steele disagrees with the idea of viewing bond as a source for court costs and fees. A bond's purpose is to help ensure a defendant shows up to court, he said.

Lake Superior Court Judge Julie Cantrell said she typically does not have a problem collecting the various costs and fees, but sees where doing away with the bond money could increase the demand for public defenders.

"It may overwhelm the public defender system we have in place," she said.

Harper said cash bonds also reduce the number of defendants failing to appear for hearings.

"People come to court because of that money," she said.

Steele said defendants released on their own recognizance show up to court in nearly the same numbers as those who post bond.

The proposed legislation would call for release unless a defendant is charged with a crime of violence or sex, has previously failed to appear to court, is a convicted sex or violent offender, has been convicted of a misdemeanor within the previous five years or lowest-level felony within the previous 10 years, or has been convicted of murder or the higher level felonies.

Cantrell said Lake County courts are already releasing many of the defendants at these levels, but not the city and town courts, which will feel the biggest impact.

"It's too expensive to keep them in the jail," she said.

Cantrell supports the concept, but would like to see those charged with drunken driving added to the list of exceptions. This would allow the courts to continue requiring substance abuse treatment as part of the pre-trial release obligations, she said.

Chief Porter County Adult Probation Officer Stephen Meyer, who serves on a statewide committee on pre-trial release, said Porter County is already doing routine screenings to determine who can be released from jail pending the outcome of their cases.

Each day someone sits in jail increases the likelihood they will reoffend because of the negative impacts on their lives, he said.

Lake County Chief Public Defender David Schneider said jail overcrowding is a continued concern.

"Anything that can be done is a step in the right direction," he said.

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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.