HANCOCK COUNTY — Hancock County’s Probation Department is restructuring its office as the county braces for an influx of low-level offenders required to serve their sentences locally under a new state law.
The department has hired an additional probation officer with the help of a $48,000 state grant and shifted another officer from juvenile to adult cases to help with the workload. The extra set of hands — which brings the department from 12 to 13 employees — should help officers better focus on monitoring criminals and addressing issues that could prompt them to reoffend as the department’s caseload increases, chief probation officer Wayne Addison said.
A change in state law, which went into effect last month, prevents judges from sending offenders with a one-year sentence or less to prison. The new sentencing guidelines require those offenders to serve their time locally — whether in the county jail or community corrections facility or on probation.
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The change has already triggered overcrowding at the jail — upwards of 180 inmates are regularly housed in a facility intended for 158 people, records show — and prompted officials at community corrections, the low-security facility next door, to add additional beds to increase capacity.
Many offenders, after they serve time in those facilities, will be required to be monitored locally by the probation department, officials said.
The department already has seen a steady 7 per-cent increase in cases since 2013, statistics show. The department ended 2015 with more than 1,370 open cases, up from 1278 in 2013.
The 2015 total equates to approximately one in every 52 Hancock County residents passing through the department.
And those numbers are expected to grow.
In 2014, the Indiana General Assembly announced changes to the state’s criminal code that altered felony classifications and the sentences associated with each offense. As of Jan. 1, the law sends people convicted of misdemeanors and Level 6 felonies — the lowest level — to local jail facilities and court-monitoring programs, not state prisons.
Offenders can end up on probation one of two ways: some are directly sentenced to the department’s supervision if they’ve committed nonviolent crimes and have little or no criminal history; others are referred to probation after serving part of their sentence elsewhere.
When making a sentencing recommendation to the judge, prosecutors weigh whether prison time, jail time or probation is the most appropriate penalty for the crime — and operate within state-mandated sentencing guidelines, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
Prosecutors are aware of the overcrowding issues at the county jail, but they are obligated to recommend the sentence that is most appropriate based on the law, he said. In other words, while more offenders will receive sentences to local programs in the coming years, it’s unrealistic to expect judges to shuffle the influx of inmates entirely to the probation department to avoid overflow.
To help handle the impending influx of offenders, longtime juvenile probation officer Mary Kay Dobbs has been moved to handling adult cases. She’ll be replaced at the juvenile level by Wendy Savino, who comes the Hancock County with 15 years of experience working with at-risk kids in Connecticut, Ohio and Hamilton County.
The probation department’s role within the county’s court system is two-fold, Addison said. Officers are charged with monitoring those convicted of crimes to ensure they are following the terms of their sentence, he said. At the same time, probation officers provide counseling in order to identify underlying issues that caused them to offend, he said.
There is no limit to the number of cases a probation officer can handle at a given time, Dobbs said; divided evenly, the 1,370 cases open at the end of 2015 comes to an average 105 cases per officer.
Probation officers are typically assigned areas of focus based on common crimes in the community. Dobbs, for example, works with sex offenders; her caseload is usually small in number but more intensive, as she’s required to meet with the offenders more often than those probation officers who handle nonviolent crimes.
The probation department is able to hold criminals accountable for their actions in a way other areas of law enforcement cannot, Dobbs said; she’s baffled when people say probation isn’t enough of a punishment for certain offenses.
During regular contact with a probation officer, offenders are required to confront the issues that landed them in trouble with the law, she said.
“They aren’t being asked questions when they are in jail; they are just serving their time,” she said. “We’re asking questions that require thought and require change.”