Vera Institute of Justice Launches Tool To Analyze What Jails Cost In Indiana

Analysis reveals how jail costs place an outsized burden on Indiana’s smallest, most under-resourced communities. | Media Contact: Claire Belanger

OCTOBER 12, 2021 - The Vera Institute of Justice will launch a digital tool—What Jails Cost Statewide in Indiana—tomorrow, October 12. This online report will provide the most comprehensive look to date at the cost of jail incarceration in counties across Indiana. Granular analysis of 2019 jail spending data for 74 of Indiana’s 92 counties is accompanied by a calculator that allows users to explore county-by-county budget numbers and estimate potential cost savings from reducing the number of people being held under local jurisdiction: unconvicted people detained before trial, and people sentenced to jail time for misdemeanors. It also includes discussion of the meager revenues generated from jails, including the money extracted from poor people through jail fees and hidden costs.

Data from the tool shows that in 2019, counties across Indiana spent at least $242.6 million to incarcerate people in 74 of the state’s 92 local jails. This is likely a significant underestimate, as it excludes funding streams that Vera was not able to identify and is missing both Indianapolis and Elkhart counties—home to the two largest jails in the state.

On average, counties spent $3,278,318 or 8.5% of their total budget on jail expenses—approximately $54 per county resident. Beneath the topline numbers, the cost of jail varies dramatically from county to county and reveals how jail costs place an outsized burden on Indiana’s smallest, least-resourced communities. Rural counties spent more on jails per resident ($72 per resident) than small cities or suburban counties.

Local jails are the “front door” to mass incarceration, and the number of Indiana residents in local lockups has increased dramatically in recent years. Most of the people in Indiana’s jails have not yet been convicted and are being detained solely because they can’t afford to pay the court or the private bail industry to secure their release while awaiting trial. Others are serving sentences for misdemeanors or low-level felonies or are incarcerated for violating the conditions of their supervision.

“The mass detention of people who are poor, sick, or struggling with substance use is not a good public safety investment,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards initiative. “The Indiana legislature has an opportunity to seriously consider policies that will address the criminalization of poor people and public health problems, ultimately saving counties money. Reinvesting savings in resources that strengthen communities—such as community-based substance use and mental health treatment, affordable housing, and reentry services—will support the long-term prosperity and health of communities and families across Indiana.”

Slight progress on decarceration was made in recent years when the statewide jail population declined 18 percent between 2019 and 2020, largely due to efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet available data shows that many county jail populations are near or above early 2020 levels—erasing progress that could have greatly benefited communities and families across the state.

If each of the 74 counties in this analysis had maintained even a 15% reduction in the locally-held population, the estimated cost savings statewide would be over $8.36 million annually. A 30% reduction would result in estimated cost savings statewide of over $36.3 million annually.

The full What Jails Cost Statewide in Indiana tool will be published at 12:00am ET on Tuesday, October 12 here:

Note: Jail spending data from the following counties are not included in the publication because disbursement data was not publicly available or reliably comprehensive: Bartholomew, Boone, DeKalb, Elkhart, Floyd, Fountain, Grant, Hamilton, Jennings, LaGrange, Marion, Noble, Ohio, Owen, Parke, Pulaski, Tippecanoe, and Washington.