Starke County Reporting Positive Results with Pretrial Release Program, As It Expands to Entire State

An initiative that aims to keep non-violent individuals out of jail while awaiting trial is now in effect throughout Indiana. Indiana Criminal Rule 26 seeks to move the criminal justice system from a cash bond system to one based on risk, according to Starke County Prosecutor Leslie Baker.

“So for example, you are arrested and charged with a crime. Now, instead of just that crime being associated with a certain numeric value in terms of a cash bond, we now are looking at risk factors: whether you’re employed, whether you’ve graduated from high school, your age, all of those sorts of things, to determine a number that’s associated with you to give us an idea of what your risk level is,” Baker explains.

The way the pretrial release program works is that suspects are interviewed. Then, a risk assessment is put together and shared with the prosecutor, judge, and public defender. Suspects may be released with no supervision, put on a pretrial probation program, or placed on GPS home monitoring. Those charged with violent crimes and certain other offenses are not eligible for pretrial release.

While many counties just fully implemented the pretrial release program at the start of the year, Starke County was one of 11 pilot counties that started it in 2016 or earlier. Overall, the program has been pretty successful, according to Baker and Pretrial Coordinator Chuck Phillips. “If you look at surrounding counties that are not a pilot county, the number one thing you see is jail overcrowding,” Phillips says. “You don’t have that problem here. When we started this four years ago, we kind of helped solve some of that problem. We’re one of the few, with the exception of maybe Pulaski, that doesn’t have a jail overcrowding problem, that’s not going back to the county government saying, ‘I need an extra $18 million to build 200 more beds.’ So it does provide financial responsibility.”

Phillips says that the people who are in jail are now typically high- to very-high-risk individuals, which wasn’t always the case in the past. “We ran into, for several years, where some of the worst offenders also had the money to bond out, while we were housing what would be considered a low-risk offender in the county jail, somebody that might have had a job at the time of the arrest, somebody with no criminal history but couldn’t afford $1,000 cash bond and they sat there,” Phillips says.

Prosecutor Baker adds that letting those low-risk individuals out of jail allows them to continue working and contributing to society while awaiting trial. “Research does show us that the longer you expose somebody who’s low-risk to criminally-minded individuals, the higher they are to re-offend in the future,” Baker says. “The goal is to keep those offenders out of custody, if possible, and to keep your high-risk, true criminally-minded people in the jail, away from the public where the public could be at danger if they are out.”

Phillips says the pretrial release effort has forced officials to change their whole approach to criminal justice from one that emphasized locking people up to one focused more on treatment. “You just can’t let them walk out and do nothing, so we’ve started cognitive behavior therapy on the outside for pretrial,” Phillips says. “We’ve increased the number of referrals to not only Porter-Starke but surrounding program providers. We’ve gotten more people in programming on the outside than they would have ever received.”

Under the pretrial release program, the rate of people who fail to show up to court is very low, according to Phillips. He adds that county officials continue reviewing the pretrial release procedures with the goal of making them better.