‘The system needs overhaul’ | Indiana prosecutor puts himself on probation to expose breakdowns in the criminal justice system

Harrison County Prosecutor Otto Schalk signed up for probation in an attempt to expose the breakdowns plaguing the criminal justice system in his community.

HARRISON COUNTY, Ind. — The Indiana Constitution mandates that the criminal justice system is built upon reformation, including opportunities for defendants to chose a better path forward. 

But, are the penalties helping or hurting?

“Ten years of prosecuting has really changed my opinion on a lot of things,” Prosecutor Otto Schalk said.

For the last decade, Schalk has served as prosecutor in rural Harrison County, Indiana. During that time, he’s realized how decisions he makes as prosecutor can have long-lasting impacts on those working their way through the system.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than 40,000 people are in prison or jail in Indiana, and upwards of 116,000 are on probation. Schalk said many are stuck in a cycle.

Alli Jayne, a defendant and expectant mother, described a “helpless” feeling as she waited for her pre-trial conference, which she said didn’t start at the scheduled time. Jayne said she had to miss work at a job she recently started, expressing concern overlooking “bad” and losing money.

“It’s kinda frustrating,” Jayne said. Makes a hard situation harder.”

Schalk wants to know what the criminal justice system could be doing better to help defendants, like Jayne, on their path forward.

“Those of us that are in the criminal justice system, we know that it’s broken. We work in it every single day,” Schalk said. “We know that overhaul has been long overdue.”

That’s why Schalk decided to embark on a year-long journey through the probation programs he’s been handing out. Each month, he’ll live through a different aspect of the system – from addiction, to family services and veterans court – with the goal of pinpointing breakdowns.

“If we can take a moment, utilize all of the programs, go through all of the programs, explore the many obstacles that people have in the criminal justice system, I think it will be a moment of real reflection,” Schalk said.

Signing Up for Probation

On the first day of Schalk’s project, he signed up for probation, a process thousands of people navigate every year. According to Schalk, probation is a mandated component for nearly 99% of the criminal justice system.

“Probation is when we sentence someone, and they have to follow certain rules and guidelines. And if they don’t, there’s the potential they could go back to jail,” Schalk said.

He logged part of the process in a Facebook post, saying there was a “tremendous amount of reading” and that he “felt the information to be overwhelming.” 

In the post he also acknowledged many others going through the process have not had the same education opportunities he has. One in nine people living in Harrison County don’t have a high school or diploma or a GED.  

“Do they really understand what they’re signing up for? And what they’re signing up for can be a life altering experience,” Schalk said.

FINANCES

According to Schalk, those who are poor or impoverished are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

He created a year-long budget, breaking down average fees someone on probation may pay, along with essentials like food, gas and car insurance.

He found that fees for probation ($390), drug and alcohol programs ($600), drug fees ($180) and countermeasures ($200) add up quickly. For someone who makes $10 an hour, it’s close to 9% of their annual income.

“Every day I sign my name on a piece of paper that changes someone’s life, but the fact that I never really thought, ‘Hey, this is the difference between someone paying this court cost versus their grocery bill.’ It’s common sense which one they’re going to likely pay,” Schalk said.

Changes

Schalk said the paperwork and payments are mandated by state lawmakers and will take time to see change. But until then, he’s turning his attention to something he can change right now.

“One of the immediate changes we’ve made is when you go on probation, if you don’t have a GED or you don’t have a job, we’re going to make it mandatory that you at least have one meeting to find out all of the opportunities they have,” Schalk said. “During that one meeting, they’re going to probably realize there’s a lot of things out there that they didn’t know were available.”

Schalk’s office is currently rewriting plea agreements to include new stipulations. He said it is the first of what will be a multitude of change by the end of the year.

WHAS11 has exclusive access to this project and will be documenting the breakdowns, challenges and changes as the prosecutor team discovers them. Next month, Shalk is tackling addiction services. 

To keep up with Schalk’s year-long project, visit his Facebook page.

►Contact reporter Shay McAlister at smcalister@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@WHAS11Shay) and Facebook.

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