In Depth with Brad Byrd: Sheriff Dave Wedding talks about jail overcrowding

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It’s a problem that impacts judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys and everyday people.

It’s a problem in Evansville and Vanderburgh County, but our community is not alone.

A man who has been talking about this for years just this week took his case to Indiana lawmakers.

Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding is talking about jail overcrowding and the impact it has on the community.

Full Transcription

Brad Byrd: It’s a problem that impacts judges, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys and everyday people. It’s a problem in Evansville and Vanderburgh County, but our community is not alone. A man who has been talking about this for years just this week took his case, once again, to Indiana lawmakers. Joining me tonight is Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding. Sheriff thanks for joining us tonight. You’re pushing for jail expansion, but this is a very complicated problem you’ve been talking to lawmakers up in Indianapolis. You’re going up there about once every week during the session. What are you telling them and break this down as far as the numbers – you showed me some interesting profiles there on what you consider to be the problem.

Dave Wedding: Well, you know, I try to educate them, first of all, who do we have in jail? I’m tired of people telling us that we have these low-level offenders, people who made an honest mistake, and we’re incarcerating them much too long. We’re not doing that. In 2018, out of the 10,200 offenders that were put in jail – we only kept about 700 people. We let about 93% of the offenders, were released right away. I think our judges, our prosecutor’s office, do a very good job of releasing people who don’t need to be in jail, who may have made the honest mistake and we let them out.

Brad Byrd: You’ve had a lot of repeat offenders though, some very familiar faces, and many of these inmates, I mean the law of physics, you’ve got a jail that’s designed to hold what, 550? So you have to send inmates out and you broke that cost down for me and I was even surprised by that.

Dave Wedding: You know, we looked at our numbers as of January the 25th and Vanderburgh County has 187 inmates housed in five jails outside of Evansville, Vanderburgh County. We need to house more out. And we’ll be housing more out, and it will end up costing us nearly two million dollars annually to house inmates out. And that’s just the raw cost of housing them outside of Evansville, Vanderburgh County. Now we have logistical problems, making the calls, transferring back and forth – maybe need to come back for court appearances, maybe getting sick over in the Posey County Jail, they don’t have a hospital, so we have to run and get them or meet Posey County and start guarding them again. So, it’s just a logistical nightmare, not to have your prisoners in your own custody.

Brad Byrd: And the tragedy sometimes of mental health issues. Are parts of your jail resembling a mental health ward in recent times.

Dave Wedding: We have plenty of people in custody that should be in a mental health facility. Years ago, in the 80s, we would take people almost everyday to the Evansville State Hospital when they had the bed space. Now that we’re absent of beds, they remain in custody until the judges can find a place to treat the mentally ill. We’re not equipped to house somebody mentally ill – we have a steel box in concrete. And somebody suffering from an acute mental illness will only degrade while in our custody.

Brad Byrd: Roberta Heiman, former longtime Evansville Courier and Press reporter wrote in an op-ed recently, “States and counties across the country are adopting alternatives. some are eliminating imprisonment for lower-level crimes, reforming marijuana laws, making more use of probation and electronic monitoring. some states are training police officers to identify alternatives to arrest and providing prosecutors’ offices with financial incentives to pursue the alternatives.” 
What does that sound like, is that happening already?

Dave Wedding: Well, we have so many programs that are alternatives to incarceration. And certainly, programs that’ll keep you out of jail. And now, you have a person who is drunk and belligerent who throws a brick bat through somebody’s front window and the police meet that person, then they fight the police – they’re probably going to jail. Cause you can’t leave them on the street to cause harm to other people.

Brad Byrd: Ok, the judges are following the law and handing down the sentences – the way the law is outlined, you used the term in-keeper, but you have seen this problem and told me an interesting story when you were a deputy, way back in the early 1980s, getting back to the mental health issue again. When you walk those long corridors or that story you shared with me in 1981, is there a face you see and sometimes say to yourself this guy shouldn’t even be here?

Dave Wedding: Yes, it happens every single day. When I was a 22-year-old jailer and I saw we had a wing that we kept mentally ill people in and we had to get them out several times a week to watch them take a shower, make sure their cells were clean. They would change their clothes and make sure they were fed properly. And I used to scratch my head as a 22-year-old kid and think why do we have these people in jail? And here we are 38 years later with the exact same problem and I have begged for four years as a sheriff that we need mental health treatment for acute mentally ill people. And we’re not getting any help. And you hear people talk about addressing the issue – I was in Florida for the Florida Sheriff’s Association, and the Attorney General told the law enforcement there that yea I’m gonna work with you on the mental ill and the opioid crisis and I told them it was a bill of sale, nothing. Because she had no plan to address the problem.

Brad Byrd: What are you getting from local government right here in Vanderburgh County? I mean, what are they telling you, you’ve been trying to get action on that front and also through the state of Indiana up in Indianapolis. Where do you go from here?

Dave Wedding: Most of it is funding and like our county government, they struggle because the funding’s not there. You know, there’s been a tax cap placed on property in Vanderburgh County, also the funding has dwindled. And they’re searching for funds, because not only do you have to build the structure, you have to pay staff, medical staff, laundry, food, utilities – it’s very expensive to have a jail. And it’s tough to come up with those funds.

Brad Byrd: Sheriff Wedding we’re gonna continue this discussion, I know you’ll be on in the future, near future, here at this table, but I appreciate you coming tonight to get a start on a very complicated issue. But bears discussion in the Vanderburgh County community. Thank you.

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(This story was originally published on January 31, 2019)

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