A collection of small, quiet towns near the Ohio River, Dearborn County does not look like a prison capital. Violent crime is rare. There are few empty storefronts. And local officials, flush with money brought in by a popular local casino, have built a convention center and a high school football field fit for a movie set.But the extraordinarily high incarceration rate here — about one in 10 adults is in prison, jail or probation — is driven less by crime and poverty than by a powerful prosecutor, hard-line judges and a growing heroin epidemic.“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. “That’s how we keep it safe here.”Opioid addiction spread early here. Mr. Negangard, the prosecutor, has fought the heroin crisis by aggressively going after drug crimes.“If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it,” Mr. Negangard said.Mr. Negangard has faced few obstacles to getting more convictions. He supervises his own police force, an unusual arrangement that allows him to investigate and prosecute most of the county’s serious crime. The police go after even minor drug cases, often offering to dismiss drug possession charges in exchange for information on friends or family members who sell drugs.Probation officials are just as strict. Offenders released on probation are tested for drugs frequently, and hundreds of people who violate the terms of their probation have been sent to state prison in the past few years.By 2014, Dearborn County sentenced more people to prison than San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., which each have at least 13 times as many people.“It’s government run amok,” said Douglas A. Garner, a local criminal defense attorney.
The rural resistance to lighter penalties goes beyond Indiana.Prosecutors in New York City have sharply cut incarceration rates in part by diverting drug offenders from prison after state changes encouraged paths to treatment. But in the rest of the state, prosecutors and judges continue to put drug offenders in prison at a steady flow.In Texas, a series of changes intended to cut the prison population led to large reductions in new prisoners from Houston and Austin. But the rest of the state has had only modest declines.