Sheriff can enter into jail contracts
Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez struck a win this week in his battle with Lake County Board of Commissioners over who has control to enter into contracts regarding the care of inmates at the Lake County Jail in a ruling that may have far-reaching implications for how county government across the state operates.
The three-member Indiana Court of Appeals Wednesday unanimously sided with the trial court’s June 30 ruling granting the sheriff the authority to enter into contracts for health care and other related inmate services without the oversight of the Lake County Board of Commissioners.
The ruling found the Indiana Constitution “expressly establishes sheriffs, among others, as elected county officials.” As such, the office has certain duties and among those is a sheriff ’s duty to “take care of the county jail and the prisoners there,” according to the opinion.
In the ruling, the Court of Appeals said it has been long settled that prisoners are entitled to medical care and that a sheriff has a duty to exercise reasonable care to preserve a prisoner’s health.
“We agree with the Sheriff that his express duty to take care of the Jail and its prisoners includes the authority to enter into contracts for this purpose,” the court wrote in the opinion.
Martinez said he was “very pleased with the opinion issued by the Court of Appeals.
“Today’s decision by the Court of Appeals confirms that Lake Superior Judge Stephen Scheel was spot-on when he ruled on June 30, 2022 that: ‘the Sheriff has and retains the authority to enter into contracts to take care of the Lake County Jail and it prisoners’,” Martinez said in a statement.
Martinez sued the commissioners in January after a dispute over a healthcare contract for the jail. Commissioners at the time balked at the exponential increases in Correctional Health Indiana Inc.,
CHI, costs over the past 10 years. The contract is worth about $6 million a year. Commissioners said no new jail medical contract would be signed until an evaluation of the health services was conducted by the nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Healthcare to determine whether the level of medical services at the jail was appropriate.
Martinez still signed the contract and CHI continues to provide services at the jail.
On Wednesday, the Lake County Commissioners again deferred multiple contract approval requests for healthcare services from the sheriff ’s department.
Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond, president of the board, said Friday that the commissioners were disappointed in the ruling and would be pursuing the matter further, either through the courts or legislatively. Repay said officials believe their position and the way it has been running for the past 100-plus years. Repay said the intent of the law lays out that the council is responsible for finances, the sheriff oversees operations and the board of commissioners approves contracts.
“The only question is do we put faith in the judicial system which has thus far failed us or do we take that effort to he legislature and say, ‘look, the judicial branch just doesn’t understand it as we all do, therefore we need you all to clarify,” Repay said, adding at this point he is unsure which route commissioners will take.
“They judged, in my opinion, wrongly,” Repay said.
The ruling will have broad implications across the state, where boards of commissioners currently oversee contracts for their sheriff ’s department and those of other elected officials within their counties. If the ruling applies to the sheriffs’ departments, it could also apply to other elected offices.
“Where is that line drawn? I don’t know. It certainly opens up a big can of worms,” Repay said.
The board of commissioners will continue to take no action on contracts presented by the sheriff ’s department for medical services. Repay said they are following the original court’s ruling, which says they have a non-binding approval ability.
He said if the board is not involved in the negotiations and their approval has no bearing, why bother approving the contracts.
“I don’t think when people elected the three of us that is what they had in mind,” Repay said.
More than 10 years ago, the Lake County Jail was placed in oversight of the Department of Justice after the county settled a 2007 civil lawsuit by inmates claiming inhumane conditions and inadequate healthcare that resulted in a rash of suicides, injuries and disease while the jail was under the administration of former Sheriff Roy Dominguez.
A consent decree was issued by the DOJ in 2010 in a deal with the county after 99 deficiencies were found at the jail. Millions of dollars were spent improving conditions at the jail including adding new staff and new infirmary and psychiatric facilities. Among the deficiencies corrected was the hiring of a medical services contractor in 2011.
The jail remained under the oversight of the DOJ through the consent decree until February 2020.