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The Indiana Department of Correction, a state agency that runs the prison system, has been dropping off Hoosiers into homeless shelters in Marion County at the end of their prison sentences — even if the formerly incarcerated people are not from Marion County.
The same thing has happened in at least two other communities, according to state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
The consequence is a “prison to homelessness pipeline,” according to State Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis, who authored a bill seeking to end the practice.
When Hoosiers finish serving time in state prison, they are typically released into their home communities. For the hundreds each year who do not have a place to live, though, they are released by the Department of Correction (DOC) directly into homeless shelters.
That appears to be especially common in Marion County.
As a result, the Department of Correction’s releases are stressing the tenuous resources available in a city already experiencing near-record levels of homelessness.
“That creates a greater burden on our homeless system here in Indianapolis when we really are struggling to keep up,” said Rev. David W. Greene Sr., who serves as a leader in the Indianapolis Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and people working to reduce homelessness. “It’s been going on for years.”
The annual count for Marion County’s homeless population reached 1,761 last year, according to the nonprofit Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention.
The number is 12% higher than the pre-pandemic levels recorded in 2019. The addition of people who aren’t from the area — and who, therefore, lack the family, housing or financial support to reintegrate into the community — contributes to the problems created by growing homelessness, Greene noted.
They need help obtaining driver’s licenses, Social Security cards and mental health treatment, let alone jobs and housing. Most in Marion County head to downtown Indianapolis, Greene said, because that’s where they can receive help and that’s where the homeless shelter Wheeler Mission is located.
Meanwhile, Greene said business owners and community members grow frustrated because homelessness contributes to the perception that downtown is unsafe.
But they are not the only ones who are frustrated.
“Service providers are frustrated because it far exceeds the capacity,” Greene told State Affairs. “I know finger-pointing is not a winning solution. I’m saying let’s all get in the same room and say this is a problem and try to address the problem.”
State Affairs requested an interview with Indiana Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Christine Blessinger, but a department spokeswoman declined to make her available.
Blessinger, though, spoke about her department’s challenges during a series of meetings last year for the Low Barrier Homeless Shelter Task Force, in large part, to help address homelessness in Indianapolis.
It’s difficult for people who leave prison to find housing, Blessinger told the task force, even if they happen to have good-paying jobs. Landlords would rather not rent their homes to someone who has a felony record.
It grew even harder when COVID-19 hit, Blessinger said. Shelters were closing or restricting how many people could enter because of distancing requirements. The Department of Correction attempted to find more placements with friends and families, Blessinger said.
“We’ve heard the rumor that we pull up on a bus and drop off a bunch of people in Marion County. That is a rumor. That is not true,” Blessinger said during an October 2022 task force meeting. “We’re still sending some to shelters and missions, clearly.”
Why It Matters
Nearly 3,400 people were released from Department of Correction custody into homeless shelters in the four-year period of 2018-21, according to data provided to the task force.
That represents 8.3% of everybody released by the department during that time period.
For Marion County, it amounts to an average of 248 people per year, or 993 people during the four-year period. (Statewide data for 2022 was not available, a Department of Correction spokeswoman said.)
It is unclear how many people were initially slated for shelter placement but then later found alternative housing arrangements.
It is also unclear how many were released into homeless shelters located outside of a person’s home county. The Indiana Department of Correction does not routinely compile that information, the spokeswoman said.
Some released to Marion County shelters may originally have been from the area. But not all of them.
State Rep. Moed, who represents Indianapolis, summarized his concerns during a House committee meeting in February.
“We want to try to avoid this transportation of folks creating a pipeline from prison to homelessness,” Moed told the House committee. “We just want to work toward a goal of being thoughtful in how folks are coming out of the system, and where they’re going, to make sure they end up in the right place and head in the right direction.”
Otherwise, they face a greater risk of remaining homeless and, eventually, back in prison, experts say.
State Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, told the House committee he previously witnessed a similar issue while serving as a commissioner in Porter County.
“It’s not fair to a community,” Aylesworth said, “to have people dumped on it without warning or without preparation.”
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, echoed some of the concerns for his city.
“I have all kinds of people tell me that they feel the DOC dumps people into our community because we have services,” Pierce told the committee. “And I think that’s what I’m hearing from Indianapolis.”
He had hoped to question the Department of Correction about its policies, but no one from the agency appeared before the committee when lawmakers were discussing the practice.
“It would be interesting to have DOC here to explain to us exactly how they decide to send people, and what they are actually doing,” Pierce told the other lawmakers. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to get them to come here and participate in the process but I think they should.”
Where the Department of Correction did participate was the series of task force meetings in 2022 that sought to address homelessness in Indianapolis.
The task force settled on several recommendations to deliver to Gov. Eric Holcomb and head lawmakers in both chambers.
One recommendation became House Bill 1087, a bipartisan bill authored by Moed this legislative session.
Under the bill, the Department of Correction would first need to coordinate with a local reentry program prior to releasing formerly incarcerated Hoosiers into counties that were not their counties of residence.
The bill aims to solve an issue Moed raised during the task force meetings: For the people who have particular housing challenges, how can the DOC notify Indianapolis officials earlier so the community can prepare to help?
It’s endorsed by the Marion County Reentry Coalition, a group of dozens of organizations that try to reduce recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people rejoin the community. Wheeler Mission Chief Development Officer Perry Hines, in a statement to State Affairs, also said the organization supports the bill, though he noted the number of people dropped off by the DOC “is not a number that gives us pause.”
The House approved the legislation this month with a 95-1 vote. Its sponsors in the Senate include a bipartisan contingent from Indianapolis: Democrats Greg Taylor and Fady Qaddoura, and Republican Aaron Freeman.
How the Department of Correction would adjust to the law is unclear. In declining State Affairs’ interview request, the Department of Correction spokeswoman said the department does not discuss pending legislation.
But Blessinger, the deputy commissioner, raised a similar question during the 2022 task force meetings.
“Where? Where do they go? Because if they’re not going home and they’re not going to a mission or shelter, where else?” she asked the group. “Because we have those ones — that we struggle — that can’t even go to a mission or shelter, so it’s finding the appropriate place for them to be.”
For Continuum of Care’s Greene, he would like to see greater participation in solving the problem from the Department of Correction.
“They’ve got to have an interest in solving the problem. I’m not trying to talk bad about anybody, but you’ve got to have a number of agencies,” Greene told State Affairs. “Leadership at the top, whether it’s the governor or whoever, has to say, ‘Let’s fix this right here.’ And I don’t think we’ve ever gotten there.”
Header image: Illustration by Brittany Phan/State Affairs
Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden is calling on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to end its support for school district consolidation in rural Indiana.
In a letter sent today, the Fort Wayne businessman labeled the business group’s position as “damaging.”
“While the stated aims of this position are laudable, the message sent to our small towns and rural communities is damaging,” Doden wrote. “Proposing to do away with small public school districts through consolidation will be seen as a death knell for the millions of Hoosiers who live in small towns and rural communities.”
For years, the Indiana Chamber has advocated for fewer school districts across Indiana. A 2017 study commissioned through Ball State University identified worse educational outcomes for students in smaller districts in several categories, including scores for state standardized testing and the SAT, as well as the pass rates for Advanced Placement classes.
The Indiana Chamber re-upped its position last month when it released its long term economic development plan. Among the listed policies was a goal to “reduce by half the number of very small school districts with enrollments below 2,000 students to provide much stronger educational opportunities for rural students and communities.”
More than half of Indiana’s school districts have fewer than 2,000 students.
In a statement to State Affairs, Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said the state is providing a “two-tiered educational system” depending on income and ZIP code.
“Hoosier students should not be limited academically solely due to where they live. And that’s the case now in some of the smaller school districts where students are not afforded the opportunity to take a full array of STEM, Advanced Placement or college preparation courses,” Brinegar said in the statement. “The Chamber’s stance on smaller school district consolidation is rooted in wanting to lift up young Hoosiers in these rural communities, so they have a better chance at prosperity by properly preparing them for the state’s current and future job opportunities.”
The statement also contained a specific response to Doden’s criticism.
“We would be happy to sit down with Mr. Doden and go through the research and show him why we have adopted this position for the betterment of the academic and economic opportunities for our young people,” Brinegar said in the statement. “The status quo that Mr. Doden is championing has and will continue to leave small communities, schools and students behind. That’s not acceptable.”
But whereas the business group sees consolidation as one way to improve life in rural Indiana, Doden sees the opposite.
“Across our state it’s easy to see the remnants of a school consolidation push that began in the 1950s,” Doden wrote in his letter. “Too many towns that lost their local school to consolidation dried up and were virtually swept from the maps while other towns kept their schools and their identities. These communities had a better opportunity to survive.”
Doden also cited one of his policy proposals, which would redirect $100 million in state money toward small towns — in an effort to address declines in populations and quality of life.
“With local leadership and local control, we can revitalize our small towns and hometowns with a fraction of the investment we give away in the form of incentives,” Doden wrote.
Doden addressed the letter to Vanessa Green Sinders, who will replace Brinegar as the Indiana Chamber’s leader. Her tenure will begin in January, so she was unavailable to provide comment to State Affairs. Either way, the Indiana Chamber’s members are the ones who suggest policy positions for the board of directors to approve before each legislative session.
In addition to Doden, the crowded Republican field for governor includes U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, former Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and former Attorney General Curtis Hill.
Jennifer McCormick, the former state superintendent of public education, has emerged as the leading Democratic candidate. Instead of school district consolidation, the state should reevaluate its expansion of school choice vouchers, McCormick has previously said.
Header image: Eric Doden, 2024 Republican candidate for governor of Indiana (Credit: Eric Doden for Indiana Governor/Facebook)
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission today filed a formal complaint against state Attorney General Todd Rokita that alleges three violations of attorney professional conduct rules.
Rokita faces official allegations that he committed professional misconduct with his public comments about Dr. Caitlin Bernard after she provided an abortion to a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim last summer.
Rokita is defending his actions, saying that state confidentiality laws shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard was the first to talk in the news media about the girl’s treatment. It could take months before the state Supreme Court decides whether Rokita will face any punishment.
The commission didn’t ask for a specific punishment against Rokita, asking simply that he be “disciplined as warranted for professional misconduct” by the state Supreme Court.
Commission Executive Director Adrienne Meiring filed the complaint that focuses on actions by Rokita and his office between early July 2022 and Nov. 30, 2022, when the attorney general’s office filed a misconduct complaint against Bernard with the state Medical Licensing Board.
Bernard drew national attention in the days after a July 1, 2022, story by The Indianapolis Star quoting her about the young girl’s abortion just days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The complaint against Rokita highlights his July 13 appearance on a Fox News program, during which he said he would investigate Bernard’s actions and called her an “abortion activist acting as a doctor — with a history of failing to report.”
It also points to his office’s unusual action of publicly releasing on July 13 a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb that named Bernard in seeking records from two state agencies and a July 14 press release from his office about the investigation.
The complaint alleges Rokita’s actions violated confidentiality requirements of pending medical licensing investigations under state law and by doing so Rokita “caused irreparable harm to Dr. Bernard’s reputational and professional image.”
Rokita responded Monday with a legal filing saying that the confidentiality requirements shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard had already gone public about the girl’s medical treatment.
Rokita also argued that “The Attorney General, an elected official who answers to the public, has a duty to keep the public informed of the Office’s actions and decisions.”
The state Medical Licensing Board voted 5-1 in May to reprimand Bernard and fine her $3,000 for violating patient privacy laws. The board, however, voted unanimously to reject allegations from the attorney general’s office that Bernard violated state law by not reporting the child abuse that led to the girl’s pregnancy to Indiana authorities and did not issue any restrictions on Bernard’s medical license.
Why It Matters
The Disciplinary Commission’s complaint carries the potential of forcing the Republican attorney general from office.
State law requires that the attorney general be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana.” The state Supreme Court, which has the final say over attorney disciplinary matters, has wide discretion, with options all the way up to permanently stripping an attorney of his law license.
Rokita won the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2020 over then-Attorney General Curtis Hill after Hill faced allegations that he drunkenly groped four women at a party celebrating the end of the 2018 legislative session.
The Supreme Court suspended Hill’s law license for 30 days, saying that “by clear and convincing evidence that [Hill] committed the criminal act of battery.” The court rejected the hearing officer’s recommendation of a longer suspension that could have forced him from office. Hill is now seeking the Republican 2024 nomination for governor.
Rokita has sought to burnish his anti-abortion and national profile with the Bernard case. Besides challenging Bernard’s medical license, his office last week filed a lawsuit against the doctor’s employer, Indiana University Health, alleging it violated federal law by allowing Bernard to disclose information about the Ohio girl’s treatment. The girl’s mother brought her to Indiana to receive abortion drugs because an Ohio ban on abortions after six weeks had taken effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer.
Rokita is entitled to defend himself with a hearing before a judicial officer appointed by the Supreme Court, who would then submit a recommended punishment to the court.
In Hill’s case, it took about 14 months from the time that the disciplinary complaint was filed against him for the court’s five justices to receive the case and make their decision.
Rokita’s defense lawyers include two from the Washington, D.C., firm Schaerr-Jaffe. The firm also assisted the attorney general’s office with the case against Bernard under a contract allowing it to bill the state $550 an hour for work by the firm’s attorneys.
“This is a complaint against the official duties of the Attorney General and is an attack against his official capacity, so this is paid by the office,” Rokita’s office said.
Rokita isn’t backing down in the political battle, either, as he released a statement Monday calling himself “a passionate fighter” who “is beating back the culture of death, grievance and transanity being pushed by radicals in workplaces, schools, media and government.”
Democrats argue Rokita is using the Bernard case “to further his own personal political ambitions.”
“Todd Rokita’s actions toward Dr. Caitlin Bernard over the past year brought shame and ridicule upon our state,” Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl said in a statement. “Now, he is starting to see the consequences of making baseless claims regarding a medical professional on national television.”
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Header image: Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks during the America First Agenda Summit organized by America First Policy Institute. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Republican Sen. Jon Ford of Terre Haute confirmed Friday that he is resigning from the Legislature to become leader of an association that promotes the coal industry and other fossil fuel producers in Indiana.
Ford told State Affairs that he will join Reliable Energy this fall after his Senate resignation takes effect Oct. 16.
“I’ll be running the association, the business side of it,” said Ford, who faces a one-year prohibition on being a paid lobbyist after leaving the Legislature.
What is Reliable Energy?
Reliable Energy was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation by prominent lobbyist Matt Bell in 2020 with the same downtown Indianapolis address as his Catalyst Public Affairs Group.
In testimony to a legislative committee last year, Bell described the group’s members as “fossil fuel producers and the Hoosier businesses supporting the fossil fuel industry.”
“Reliable Energy advocates for policies that ensure an abundant supply of available, affordable and dependable energy in Indiana and across the country,” Bell’s testimony said.
The organization is an offshoot of the Indiana Coal Council.
“I think it really grew out of that group and is really a group made up of membership of people involved in energy in a lot of different ways,” Ford said. “Many of the members are vertically integrated power companies. Some produce coal, some produce energy. Most are involved in alternative energies, as well.”
Ford’s reasons for resignation?
Ford, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, won reelection last November to a four-year term. His resignation will result in a new senator serving for three legislative sessions without appearing on a general election ballot.
Ford cited personal reasons for deciding to resign less than a year after winning his new Senate term.
“Some things in my life have changed that made me think, you know, the passing of friends and other life events made me rethink what I wanted to do in my life and what I had achieved in the district,” Ford said. “I just felt it was time to move on.”
Ford said the Reliable Energy position didn’t prompt his Senate resignation.
“The job really came after the decision that it was time to move on,” he said.
Ford hasn’t specialized in energy-related issues while in the Legislature and hasn’t been a member of the utilities or environmental committees that consider most such legislation.
Ford has been business development director for the economic and community development group Thrive West Central, based in Terre Haute.
Will Ford become a lobbyist?
State law prohibits members of the General Assembly from lobbying former colleagues for one year after leaving office.
Ford said that even after that time he was not sure he would become an advocate for Reliable Energy in the Statehouse hallways.
“This group has had a hired lobbyist for a while that’s worked with them, so I don’t know,” Ford said. “I would see it playing a similar role to many other associations that are out there, but, you know, main focus will be to grow it and to focus on where Indiana goes forward with energy.”
Involvement in selecting replacement?
Ford was noncommittal on whether he would endorse a candidate to replace him ahead of the caucus of Republican precinct committee leaders who will make that decision in the coming weeks.
“I don’t know at this time, it really depends, I guess, on who steps up,” Ford said. “I don’t foresee myself being at the vote, to be quite honest. I think it’s a decision of the precinct committeemen.”
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Header image: Republican Sen. Jon Ford speaks in the Indiana Senate chamber. (Credit: Indiana Senate Republicans)
Indiana’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is already receiving more than 3,000 calls per month a little more than a year after its launch, according to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, and more than 90% of the calls are being answered by trained Hoosiers.
The state agency provided an update this week in part to raise awareness for National Suicide Prevention Month.
The 988 hotline is a free resource for people who are experiencing a crisis. Callers can receive a supportive ear on the call as well as resources to help.
That’s why state officials want to have as many calls as possible answered by people who live in Indiana. While the calls are being backstopped by people working nationally, the people working in Indiana’s five call centers can more easily connect callers to in-person resources to help with whatever is contributing to the crisis, such as a lack of food or housing.
Indiana’s answer rate of more than 90% since November is leading the nation, according to state officials.
A caller’s average wait time is about 10 seconds, said Kara Biro, Family and Social Services Administration state director of behavioral health crisis care, and the average call lasts 12 to 20 minutes.
The hotline, launched in Indiana last July, is just the first step in a larger vision. The state is steadily building a three-part crisis system that also includes mobile crisis teams to respond to calls for help and crisis stabilization units where people can go for up to 23 hours at a time to receive care.
“We are marching toward a time where individuals in crisis, regardless of day, time or location, have someone to call, someone who can respond, and a safe place to help,” Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Dr. Daniel Rusyniak said.
Why It Matters
As a result, Indiana is persistently ranked as one of the worst states by the nonprofit Mental Health America when it comes to mental health treatment.
But, almost quietly, change appears to be on the horizon. And maybe even hope.
During the last legislative session, Indiana lawmakers poured $100 million in new money over two years into mental health treatment.
That amounted to less than half of what experts say is needed to fully address the crisis. At least $130.6 million per year would be needed, according to a 2022 estimate by the state.
But an additional $50 million per year was still celebrated by Gov. Eric Holcomb and mental health advocates — who all noted that the three-part crisis system will not be built overnight anyway.
And that’s on top of the more than $100 million that the federal government sent Indiana to kickstart the creation of the three-part crisis system.
In June, state officials awarded a combined $57 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to community mental health centers in 15 counties to expand the services they provide to people in crisis.
Stabilization units, in particular, were the focus of the grants.
“These are physical locations — a safe place for help — where individuals in crisis will be stabilized and connected with follow up care,” Jay Chaudhary, director of the state’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction, said at the time. “Too many Hoosiers today in behavioral health crises end up in a jail or in the emergency department.”
Meanwhile, the Family and Social Services Administration is on track to apply for what’s called a Medicaid demonstration program. If approved, mental health providers would receive greater Medicaid reimbursements, which advocates say would make it far easier to implement and expand the services they can provide to Hoosiers who need mental health treatment. The state is facing a March 2024 deadline to apply, officials confirmed this week.
And the state is still hoping for statewide coverage of the three-part crisis system by 2027.
As for the 988 hotline, state officials are hoping to increase accessibility to people who don’t speak English or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which has trained listeners standing by and ready to help. Visit 988indiana.org for crisis services or for more information. Visit the Indiana Suicide Prevention website for resources.
Header image: Indiana’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched last year and is already receiving more than 3,000 calls per month. (Credit: Indiana Family and Social Services Administration)