Candidates weigh options for jail

GREENFIELD — If there’s one thing every Republican candidate for Hancock County Council can agree on, it’s that the county jail is overcrowded.

It’s a problem counties across the state are facing after a change in sentencing guidelines started sending more low-level offenders to serve time in jail rather than prison.

The 11 Republican candidates running for three open seats on the county’s fiscal body say it’s a problem that cannot be ignored, and they’re ready to help find solutions to the problem if elected.

Nearly every candidate running for county council cites the overcrowded jail as a priority they believe needs to be tackled soon.

On Monday afternoon, 189 inmates were being housed in the facility with a capacity of 158, officials said.

In the county council at-large race, incumbents Debbie Bledsoe and Kent Fisk are challenged by Ed Moore, Dave Roberts, Scott Wooldridge, Steve Craney, John Priore, George Langston, Martha Vail, Bob McDaniel and Mark Lozier in the May 3 primary for their party’s nomination for three seats.

The primary winners will face Democrats Rita Johnson and Randy Jones in November.

Proposed solutions include building a new jail — a pricey option that would have to be approved by the council — and expanding the county’s community corrections facility, which neighbors the jail and offers lower-security housing as well as home detention and other alternative sentencing programs.

Fisk and Bledsoe are familiar with the jail’s issues, having served four years on the council. They’ve watched the numbers increase as criminal sentencing guidelines have changed and say the swelling population is an issue that can’t be put off for long.

They pointed to the steps county leaders are already taking to help mitigate the problem as evidence the problem is being addressed appropriately. This year, Hancock County Community Corrections renovated its space to add 16 new beds to the facility, and the Hancock County Board of Commissioners approved a facilities study of the current jail to help county officials better understand the problem and potential solutions.

County leaders will have to take the solutions proposed from the study and look at possible funding sources for those solutions, the incumbents and McDaniel said.

Dave Roberts and Scott Wooldridge, both attorneys, say it’s important the county’s administrative and fiscal bodies find solutions for the overcrowded jail before legal problems arise.

Roberts said one solution might be moving some of the administration offices located in the jail to another county building and renovating that space to create more cells.

Wooldridge said because counties across the state face the same problem, county leaders from nearby could meet to discuss solutions that might include building a multi-county jail.

Ed Moore proposed using the existing jail as a maximum security site for the county’s worst offenders and building a larger minimum security facility, much like community corrections, to accommodate non-violent offenders. But he realizes such a solution would require significant funding upfront to build a new facility, as well as long-funding to pay for staffing and overhead.

The jail opened in 1988. Because the facility is only 30 years old, it doesn’t make sense to build something new, Craney countered. Craney allows that something needs to be done immediately to alleviate the overcrowding, but he calls on the next group of commissioners and council members to create a long-term plan to address the jail population for the next 100 years or more.

And local tea party members John Priore, Martha Vail and George Langston argue the jail overcrowding needs to be prioritized over other costly projects before the council — namely, a proposed new fairgrounds. That project should be placed on the back burner until county leaders have a plan in place to address the jail population, they said.

Mark Lozier said he’d like to explore options that include expanding current facilities rather than building new ones, but the council and commissioners should know all the options and cost before making any decisions, he said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.