HANCOCK COUNTY — To the five candidates seeking election to the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, there are no simple strategies to resolve the county’s growing jail population.
A statewide change in sentencing guidelines that went into effect this year now sends low-level offenders to local jails rather than state prisons, a shift that has flooded jails statewide, including the local facility.
As of Thursday evening, 189 inmates were booked in the county jail, which is designed to accommodate 158, officials said.
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The five Republican candidates seeking their party’s nomination in the May 3 primary agree addressing the overpopulation will be one of the most urgent issues local officials face in the near future.
Republican candidate Matt Holland is up against incumbent Brad Armstrong, who’s completing his second term on the board that serves as the county’s executive branch, in the District 3 race. The candidates, both from New Palestine, are running to represent residents in Blue River, Brandywine and Sugar Creek townships.
The race for the District 1 seat, which makes up Brown, Green and Vernon townships, pits Republican candidates John Jessup, Randy Harrison and Randy Sorrell against one another. Incumbent Tom Stevens opted not to seek re-election.
No Democrats have filed to run for the seats.
Proposals to accommodate the facility’s growing population include building an entirely new jail and increasing the size of community corrections, which sits adjacent to the jail and provides low-security housing and alternative sentencing programs.
Holland, a lieutenant with the Greenfield Police Department who formerly served as a narcotics detective, proposes expanding community corrections and alternative programming that would allow low-level offenders to transition out of the county jail and free up space for inmates who have committed more serious crimes. Holland would also like to explore the possibility of providing rehabilitation and mental health services to offenders battling addiction and substance abuse — a concept Armstrong and Sorrell said they support.
Armstrong agrees that an expansion to community corrections could be an appropriate solution. Earlier this year, the commissioners approved a facilities study of the current jail; that report, which is expected to be complete in mid-May, will provide county leaders with a better sense of what they need to do to accommodate more inmates, Armstrong said.
Jessup and Sorrell, who both currently serve on the county council, also support an expansion to the county’s probation, work-release and home detention programs.
While that would likely result in increased costs for new equipment and county employees, it would still be significantly cheaper than constructing a new facility, Jessup said.
Sorrell said building an entirely new jail should be a last resort as it would be exorbitantly expensive. Unless the jail study reveals an insurmountable inmate increase, funding would be better spent on expanding alternative sentencing programs, Sorrell said.
Harrison said he would consider teaming up with other communities to establish a multi-county jail. Other counties are seeing the same strain on facilities that local officials are addressing, he said, and a shared facility would likely mean lower costs for all parties.