Close quarters

GREENFIELD — There is a bit of a pattern — an ebb and flow of inmates — at the Hancock County Jail. The weekends see an influx of drunken drivers; Thursdays and Fridays bring offenders ordered to serve time after violating their probation. Mixed in are an array of other bookings.

At any given time, there could be upward of 170 inmates in a facility intended to house 158.

And a change in state law could lead to increased overcrowding, jail officials said. Starting in January, judges no longer will have the option of sending offenders with a one-year sentence or less to prison; the new regulations require those inmates to be housed locally.

That leaves county jails, community corrections programs or probation as the only sentencing options, which likely will cause a jump in the number of inmates staying at the facility longer than the current average stay of 52 days. That increases the risk of overpopulation, adds to the costs associated with providing care to offenders and stresses resources that are already stretched thin, officials said.

County officials said they are aware of the new law and the issues it presents for local budgeting. Deciding how best to deal with the inevitable influx of inmates is a bit of a guessing game, however, they said.

The Indiana General Assembly has made a series of changes to the state’s criminal code, starting with an overhaul in 2014 that altered felony classifications and the sentences associated with each level.

Starting in July, people convicted of misdemeanors and Level 6 felonies — the lowest level — and those convicts with sentences of 90 days or less no longer could be sent to an Indiana Department of Correction prison. At the start of 2016, the minimum goes from 90 days to 365.

That could mean trouble in Hancock County, where an estimated 35 percent of offenders fall into those categories, said Pat Powers, executive director of Hancock County Community Corrections, the facility east of the jail that operates programs including work-release and home detention.

In 2014, 134 people were convicted of felonies in Hancock County and sent to state prisons, Powers said. Of those, 45 were considered low-level offenders and would have been kept in the county under the new law. Housing and monitoring those individuals will require more manpower and funding, and each facility has space issues to consider, officials said.

“We can only take so many, and the jail can only take so many,” Powers said.

Limited bunk space and the threat of more costly food and health care are major concerns for jail officials, said jail commander Capt. Andy Craig.

The jail was intended to be a holding facility, somewhere for those charged with crimes to stay while they await trial — not a place equipped to hold inmates over the long term, he said.

The facility doesn’t have room for an influx of inmates, not only in terms of cell space but recreation areas that would be available in state prisons. The county also can’t currently afford to pay for the health care required for long-term sentences, including dental work and mental health, Craig said.

“We aren’t designed for it,” he said. “… If you start looking after people for a year, year and a half, two years, … it’s going to be a huge drain, financially, … and our numbers are going to skyrocket. It’s everyone’s fear; it’s just a matter of time.”

Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, said he has repeatedly approached the Hancock County Council and Board of Commissioners to ask for additional jail officers to address the rising inmate population. During this year’s budget talks, he requested four new jailers but was approved to hire only one, he said.

Community corrections, too, often runs at capacity and will need additional space or monitoring devices to accommodate more offenders enrolling in their programs, Powers said.

If the data from 2014 hold true for future years, Powers guessed he might need at least two additional community corrections officers to handle the increase. The salaries and benefits alone for those officers could cost about $100,000, and further funding would be needed for equipment.

The state allocated a portion of its prison funding toward grants to be divided among the more than 70 community corrections programs in the state; Powers is working to apply for those funds.

Next door, however, jail officials say they weren’t afforded the same options, and they’ve warned county leaders cost burdens could fall to taxpayers.

Sheriff Mike Shepherd said the department’s leaders have done a good job moving funds when necessary. For example, lower fuel prices could leave a surplus in one account that can be transferred with the county council’s permission. But they can only go so far, and eventually, he expects the costs will be too high.

Should that happen, the county will have to step in and decide what to do next, commissioner Brad Armstrong said. The board has a preliminary plan in place to look at jail data collected during the first year of the law being in effect before making a final determination; solutions could range from hiring more staffers to building larger facilities, he said.

“As soon as they come into custody, it’s at the county’s cost,” Armstrong said. “It’s a numbers game.”

By the numbers

158: Capacity at Hancock County Jail

169: Inmates being held at the jail Monday

52 days: Average stay of county inmates

45: People sentenced in 2014 to serve prison time who would be housed locally under new laws

Author photo
Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or