This Indiana County Sends More People to Prison Per Capita Than Almost Any County in America

By Paul Gaita 09/08/16

According to 2015 estimates, approximately one in 10 adults in Dearborn County is in prison, jail or on probation.

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This Indiana County Sends More People to Prison Per Capita Than Almost Any County in America

As legislators across the United States seek to reduce the booming national prison population through sentencing reform, one small county in Indiana has so significantly increased the number of individuals it sends to prison that it far exceeds sentencing statistics in San Francisco or the whole of Westchester County, New York.

Dearborn County, located in southeastern Indiana, logged a per capita prison rate of 114 per 10,000 people in 2014—an increase of more than 140% since 2006, according to Eagle Country. In a region with less than 50,000 residents (according to 2015 estimates), approximately one in 10 adults in Dearborn County is in prison, jail or on probation.

Local lawmakers cite ever-increasing rates of heroin and opioid addiction in their state as the impetus for maintaining such high incarceration numbers. “We can’t just let the bad guys go,” said Dearborn County prosecutor Aaron Negangard. But criminal defense attorneys on both sides of the Dearborn County line believe that the county’s hard-line approach to drug offenses is excessively punitive. “It’s government run amok,” said attorney Douglas Garner of Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Opponents of Negangard’s strategy cite the cases of Scott Huy and Donnie Gaddis as prime examples of the county’s heavy prosecutorial hand. Huy drove from his home in Cincinnati to Dearborn County in 2013 to sell 6.8 grams of heroin to an undercover officer. Huy, who had already served five years in prison on two prior drug trafficking convictions, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Had Huy been prosecuted in Cincinnati, he would have likely been sentenced to two to five years, according to a New York Times report, while courts in Brooklyn, New York or San Francisco would have given him up to three years or no time at all.

Donnie Gaddis of Lawrenceburg was arrested in 2015 for selling 15 oxycodone pills and sentenced to 16 years, though Indiana law only required a 12-year sentence. Gaddis would have received drug treatment in New York and San Francisco and no more than six months in Cincinnati.

In an interview with Eagle Country, a Lawrenceburg radio station, Negangard addressed the disparities between Dearborn County sentencing and the rest of the nation by saying, “I wouldn’t want Dearborn County to resemble San Francisco in any way in regards to our criminal justice system. San Francisco is a sanctuary city for criminals. [It] needs to be like Dearborn County. Not the other way around.”

As for the Huy and Gaddis cases, he said, “These are dangerous people who had gotten breaks before who were finally held accountable. Donnie Gaddis and Scott Huy got the sentences they deserved.”

Garner also spoke to the radio station about the sentencing issues. “Resources are being diverted from drug treatment. We’re not succeeding in changing drug use by incarcerating people. It hasn’t worked since Reagan started the War on Drugs.”

Dearborn County poured $11.5 million into its local jail to double its size and approved an additional $11 million to expand the county courthouse, but has provided limited funds for drug treatment programs for inmates.

According to county judge Jonathan L. Cleary, about 225 of the 250 inmates in the Dearborn County jail have drug addiction issues, but county resources can serve only 40 of them. “People’s hearts are in the right spot [regarding crime],” said Garner. “It’s just finding the best use of resources.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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