INDIANAPOLIS — A new study from the Center for Health and Justice Research at the IU Public Policy Institute found that changes made in 2020 due to COVID-19 reduced jail populations across Indiana may have long-term impacts on jail operations.
CHJR researchers examined jail populations in 19 Indiana counties—La Porte, St. Joseph, Starke, Pulaski, Whitley, Tippecanoe, Clinton, Montgomery, Boone, Hamilton, Putnam, Clay, Hendricks, Hancock, Knox, Jackson, Washington, Dearborn, and Perry—from February 2020 through June 2020.
The study found that jail populations in Indiana generally fell at a quicker rate and remained lower than regional and national averages yet varied widely from county to county. Overall, jail populations in Indiana fell 32% during the first part of the pandemic—compared to 27% nationally—before increasing 3% by the end of June.
Individual county rates ranged from a 4% overall drop in Washington County to a 62% reduction in Hamilton County. Clay and La Porte counties trailed regional and national reductions throughout the study, while jail populations in Dearborn, Putnam, and Whitley counties appeared to aggressively normalize after the first COVID-19 peak in April.
Of the 19 Indiana counties researched, Montgomery County saw the second highest reduction rate at 52.5%. The study found that Montgomery County had 203 inmates in February of 2020 and fell to 103 during the first COVID-19 outbreak in April and fell as low as 97 inmates in June of 2020.
“We’ve worked with the courts a lot last March, fearing what COVID was going to bring,” Montgomery County Sheriff Ryan Needham said. “When it really started getting talked about daily, we were near capacity at that point, so we reached out to the courts, because we had a lot of low level offenders in jail. Obviously we can’t shut the doors and close down, so we wanted to get some of those low level offenders moved just so we would have room to isolate new prisoners.”
The study also looked at operational changes implemented during the pandemic, including inmate release, court-related proceedings and inmate education. When evaluating inmate releases to reduce jail populations, the seriousness of charges and criminal history were the main considerations, though other factors—such as bond amounts and inmate health risks—also contributed. The overwhelming majority of study participants indicated they did not believe COVID-related releases would impact crime rates in their areas.
“We had pretty strict COVID procedures at the jail, which worked. To date we’ve had zero cases of COVID in the jail,” Needham added. “I don’t know how we’ve managed that because we’ve had several employees that have contracted the virus, but we’ve kept it out of the inmate population, which is our goal.”
Needham said the restrictions remained in place until about three weeks ago — resulting in a recent uptick in inmates.
“We loosened up restrictions about three weeks ago, where we are starting to accept a lot more prisoners,” he said. “The low level warrants, the possession, the probation violations and things like that.”
“We still have procedures in place, but they’ve been greatly loosened, and our numbers are starting to go back up.”
As of Thursday, the Montgomery County Jail had 126 inmates. The jail has a capacity of 224.
Sheriff’s offices also described operational changes they hope could become permanent fixtures in their facilities, including enhanced cleaning procedures, virtual programming and video court appearances.
“Things with courts and the attorneys,” Needham said. “We’ve had video court for quite some time. They’ve been able to conduct hearings via Zoom, the attorneys have been able to meet with inmates via video and I look for some of those things to stay in place, especially with the attorneys. It’s certainly a lot more convenient for them and quicker I think to meet via video. We’ve added a couple of computers for inmate use for that reason.”