Corrections shortfall divides council

By TONY RAAP
Herald Staff Writer

Financial woes that have bedeviled the Dubois County Community Corrections Center have led to sharply divided opinions among Dubois County Council members over how to fix the problem.

The county council on Monday formally approved more than $44,000 in emergency funds that community corrections Director J.P. Weisheit requested last month, but not before council President Greg Kendall voiced his displeasure over having to bail out the Jasper-based work-release program.

When the center was built more than 10 years ago, county officials agreed to pay for the $3.5 million facility, located next to the county jail, after being told that community corrections would be self-sufficient. But now, with the program facing a funding shortfall, the center has had to rely on the county just to break even.

Each year, the center’s expenses go up, but for the last several years its funding from the state has remained about the same. Meanwhile, fees it collects from offenders continue to dwindle.

The center can garnish an offender’s wages, but child support gets first crack. An offender’s wages often are garnished two or three times before community corrections gets its cut. And by then, there isn’t much left to garnish, Weisheit has said.

Kendall said corrections officials are letting offenders off the hook too easily, arguing that those who don’t pay their fees should be thrown in jail. After speaking to officials in other counties, he noted that this doesn’t seem to be a problem elsewhere.

Other counties give offenders a few weeks to catch up on delinquent fees, “and if not, they go back to jail. It’s that simple,” Kendall said. In some cases, family members step in and pay.

But the bottom line: Offenders in other counties aren’t allowed to leave the community corrections program “until those bills are paid,” Kendall said.

He believes Dubois County corrections officials need to start practicing tough love. If the policy doesn’t have teeth, “these guys are never going to pay,” he said.

When offenders don’t pay their bills, “we still want to give them another break and pat them on the back and say, ”˜It’s OK, Big Guy. Don’t pay your bills, and taxpayers will take care of it,’” Kendall said.

But other council members argued that the problem is more complicated than that. Programs like work release and home detention help reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons, saving the county more than $1 million a year, according to the center’s annual report.

“I know what you’re saying,” council member Martha Wehr told Kendall. But “I hate to see us spending more money on someone that’s sitting in jail.”

Council member Shane Lindauer agreed that the issue has to do with principle but also noted that council members need to be mindful of expenses.

“If they go back into jail, it’s going to ultimately cost the taxpayer more money,” Lindauer said.

Council Vice President Jerry Hunefeld, who also serves on the community corrections advisory board, said other factors need to be taken into consideration. When offenders are locked up, their child support payments are cut off, causing their children to suffer.

“This is not an easy solution,” Hunefeld said.

The community corrections advisory board, which planned to meet today, was expected to discuss ways to make up its shortfall without having to rely on the county. Weisheit also has asked the state for more money but has yet to hear back.

Each year, the center receives a $400,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Correction. To break even, it needs to collect about $45,000 a month in offender-generated fees.

But for more than a year, fees have fallen short, forcing corrections officials to burn through emergency funds and reserves just to get by. If the trend continues, the center will be $145,000 in the red by the end of its fiscal year in June, according to an analysis compiled by Weisheit.

Weisheit appeared before the county council last month to request $44,242 in additional funds to help the program get through the rest of the calendar year. Council members indicated that they would approve the request but did not formally OK the move until Monday’s meeting, which Weisheit did not attend.

Although Kendall ultimately voted to approve the additional funds, he fears that community corrections officials will come to the county whenever they need more money.

“Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to take a stand,” he said.

Hunefeld said he understood why Kendall was angry, but “the issue is, How can we solve the problem?” he said. “And I don’t think we’ve arrived at that yet.”

Contact Tony Raap at traap@dcherald.com.




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