Indiana Counties Try To Keep Jail Populations Low To Limit Infections

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana counties appear to have taken seriously a plea to limit coronavirus infections by reducing jail populations.

An I-U-P-U-I Public Policy Institute review of 11 Indiana jails finds they all had at least eight-percent fewer inmates five weeks after March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a pandemic, than five weeks before. Marion County wasn’t part of the study, but Sheriff Kerry Forestal says the county’s two jails cut their numbers by 28-percent over that span.

Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal

Forestal says part of the reduction stems from police officers making an effort to issue tickets for misdemeanors instead of arresting people. And he says Marion County’s judges worked with prosecutors and public defenders to hold initial hearings as quickly as possible for people who were arrested, and to either resolve or reschedule already-pending cases so defendants didn’t sit in jail awaiting trial.

Governor Holcomb, Chief Justice Loretta Rush and legislative leaders urged judges and sheriffs in early April to assess whether there were nonviolent inmates who could be released without creating a public safety risk.

The I-U-P-U-I study looked at more than 500 jails nationwide. Only 33 had more people behind bars after the pandemic than before. On average, jail populations declined 17-percent. Indiana’s decrease was 21-percent, or 24-percent if Marion County is added in. Researcher Kevin Martyn says the reductions are too large to be explained by the natural ebb and flow of arrests.

Martyn says the survey could lay a foundation for more studies of how jail policies affected the virus’s spread.

Marion County has seven current coronavirus cases in its jails. 236 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic began, two-percent of the county’s overall total.