On Near Eastside, some hesitant about new justice center -- others see 'goldmine'

INDIANAPOLIS -- Around 80 Near Eastside residents packed into a room at the John H. Boner Community Center Thursday night to listen, and speak, about the possibility of the city's new criminal justice center coming to their neighborhood.

The $500 million project has been proposed for years, but is now under fast-track by Mayor Joe Hogsett's administration.

According to Indianapolis Corporate Counsel Andy Mallon, three sites have risen to the top of the list for the center: one near the Indianapolis International Airport; the former site of the Citizens Energy coke plant in the Twin Aire Neighborhood; and the former site of the RCA industrial plant in the Near Eastside's Sherman Park.

When the RCA plant was still operating just northwest of Sherman Drive and Michigan Street, it was a "goldmine" for the community, according to Chris Staab, who lives in the Rivoli Park area. Staab says he and his neighbors see a similar opportunity in the criminal justice center.

"We do see this as a goldmine," Staab said. "And if we don't get this opportunity, it may be a long time before another comes around. Rivoli Park community took a vote Tuesday night, and it was unanimous in support of it. We think it's a great opportunity not just for Ridley Park, but for the whole Near Eastside."

Not everyone at the meeting shared Staab's enthusiasm. Four people indicated in a straw poll that they were opposed to the project, and more than 20 said they were still undecided.

Everyone, for and against the project, had the opportunity to ask questions of Mallon after a short presentation about what it would entail. You can find a transcript of that Q&A session below (all of the responses come from Indianapolis Corporate Counsel Andy Mallon):

Do you expect a decline or an increase in police presence and/or criminal activity in the area?

"There will be more police presence as a result. This is where all the police officers will go, whether they're taking people to jail or coming to testify in court."

"The short answer is no, I don't think that will be the case. Right now we have two jails downtown. Those jails do not drive crime. They just don’t. Some of the safest neighborhoods in the county are Chatam Arch and Lockerbie. They don't hurt property values."

What steps will the city make to see jobs go to neighborhood residents?

"Here's where I’m going to be candid to you: These are not new jobs. This is moving jobs that currently exist to a new location. That being said, there is a tremendous amount of turnover when you talk about corrections officers and the jail and the jail medical staff. They just can't get enough people through the door. So there's employment opportunities for the neighborhood. But when I talk about hundreds or thousands of jobs, I'm not talking about hundreds or thousands of new jobs. In fact, some of the financing relies on an overall reduction of jobs."

Are there any privatized jails that will be part of this plan?

"No. There will be no privately run jail."

Historically, what happens to property values around these kinds of facilities?

"Well, this is kind of a new concept here. But in this case, you'd expect them to go up, because there's basically nothing there now."

Will there be other opportunities to meet with the city about this project if it goes forward?

"Absolutely. As this moves forward, we're going to make sure that if it starts as something the neighborhood wants, then it will end as something the neighborhood wants."

What economic development opportunity is created when a criminal justice center is placed in a high-crime and high-poverty neighborhood?

"I don't know. Part of our job is to design a facility or a set of facilities that is attractive so that the court does want to come, so that the sheriff does want to come, so that lawyers do want to co-locate nearby. We see it as transformational to bring something that is an economic driver in downtowns all around the state of Indiana to an area that has no economic development going on right now – at least within the four corners of this site."

Is there an opportunity for a mental health campus on the site?

"There is an opportunity for that. Bear in mind: This is not a long-term mental health facility. This is not the next Central State. There are housing opportunities for those with mental health issues, but those would be voluntary."

Is there any discussion of using the former IREF (women's prison) site?

"Initially the IREF site was on our list, but we ultimately removed it after we determined it was too small. We've talked about what's the future of that. It's not our property; it's DOC property. We've talked about plans going forward. Maybe there can be a partnership on that."

Will there be procedures put in place to protect LGBT inmates?

"International best practices for jail construction is to build segregation facilities for those at-risk populations, so that will be built into the facility."

Will people be able to walk in off the street to the mental health campus?

"Yes."

What will happen to Jail II, will it still be a jail?

"Our plan is to move work release to Jail II where it has a better ability to expand without us having to build a new facility."

What about CCA?

"CCA will not be running our jails."

What happens if the mental health care funding from the Affordable Care Act goes away?

"Great question. I'm confident that it will still be there. Really it's HIP 2.0, which was Vice President Pence's initiative. Really a feather in his cap. A lot of the same people are headed to Washington. And really, a lot of the same rhetoric is coming out of the governor's office. He just created a cabinet-level position to address mental health issues. It's really remarkable in that it's a bipartisan issue."

Will this be a beautiful addition to the neighborhood?

"It's the art of the possible. We're going to commit to best practices. We'll do our best."

When will architectural renderings be available?

"When we have a site, and we know how much we're going to spend, and we know who the architects are. Our goal, is to have the bids back by the end of this year."

Are individuals released in to the neighborhood and/or required to stay in the neighborhood?

"Definitely not required to stay in the neighborhood. Released … I know the former administration had talked to the neighborhood around the GM stamping plant about having buses and shuttles available so that people weren't just walking right out the door."

Will every person arrested for a minor offense go to the assessment and intervention center?

"No. Every person who walks through the doors of the booking area will have an initial assessment just to see what their background on mental health illnesses and substance abuse issues is."

Will surrounding private residential properties be remade into commercial tracts?

"That's not our intent. If you want to sell your property to a private developer – OK."

Will there be an increase in patrols around the facility?

"I don't know the answer to that. That's a question for the new chief."

Who is the governing entity of this new facility?

"The jail will be run by the sheriff. The courthouse will be run by court administration. The assessment center will be owned and maintained by the county, but the clinical treatment will all be run through health and hospital."

What other sites are under serious consideration?

"Three neighborhoods have reached out to us: you; Twin Aire; and folks out at the airport. All three are feasible. There's a way forward for all three of those, so we're really digging in deep with all three of those. I really mean it when we say this is driven by the neighborhoods."

Are there opportunities to develop a reinvestment fund for this community?

"That's a good idea. We can talk about that."

How strong are the odds of this site being chosen?

"I want your feedback. If you want it, let us know. If you don't want it, let us know. I'm not going to put odds on it. It's certainly a viable, feasible site. There are challenges with it. So we're going to continue weighing the challenges with feedback from you."

"Yeah, every court would love to be downtown and would love to have a $600 million facility, and unicorns and gumdrops … and we're going to do the best for them."

Mallon said the city will make its decision about the location of the criminal justice center by January 31. Near Eastside residents planned to hold a formal meeting to vote on whether or not to support the proposal later this month.

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