GREENFIELD — The county’s attorney asked judges to consider releasing low-level offenders without bond to free up space at the cramped county jail.

But local judges said they’d put the community at risk if they let inmates leave the jail without ponying up cash aimed at encouraging them to return to court. Instead, they’re pushing for staff to help screen court cases in an effort to move offenders through the system more quickly.

For months, the overcrowded jail has been the centerpiece of discussion, which has been heated at times, among local officials as they search for ways to address the swelling population.

Early this week, 189 inmates were being held in the county jail that has a capacity of 157, and more than 60 percent of those inmates, or 121, were waiting for their trials to start. Twenty-four of the inmates sitting in jail had bonds set at $1,000 or less, meaning they’re likely not violent offenders and can be released from jail without worry they’ll hurt someone, said county attorney Ray Richardson.

During a meeting this week, he asked the county’s judges why they won’t release those inmates without bond. The judges argued what they need is more help screening offenders’ cases to learn why they’re sitting in jail.

Hancock County Superior 1 Judge Terry Snow scoffed at Richardson’s proposal. He presides over only felony cases, and he’s not going to release an inmate facing a felony charge without bond, he said.

“They’re a felony because they’ve been deemed to be a serious crime. That’s the bottom line,” Snow said. “You got that?”

Some inmates prefer to stay in jail, where they’re guaranteed shelter and three meals a day, officials said. Even if they can afford their bond, they don’t pay it, they said.

But Richardson said those inmates are contributing to the swelling population at the jail, and they’ll be the reason the county has to build a new one — an endeavor that would likely cost between $20 million and $30 million, Richardson said.

“It seems to me we ought to get them out,” he said. “Tell them to hit the road; we’re not going to give them free room and board.”

He worries about potential lawsuits filed against the county by inmates complaining about the lack of space, he said.

But lowering offender bonds to encourage inmates to pay them in order to free up space in the jail isn’t an avenue judges want to take, Culver said. Judges have to keep the public’s safety in mind when looking for a solution to the overcrowded jail, he added.

So, the judge is offering an alternative.

Culver told the Hancock County Board of Commissioners this week he spends about three to five hours a week screening court cases to check whether they’re moving along in a timely manner or to determine if there’s a hold-up and what’s causing it.

Ethically, he must consult defense attorneys and prosecutors in every case, which can be time-consuming, he said.

Hiring another county employee to take on some of the review work would free up his time, Culver said. And because that person wouldn’t be ethically bound to speak with both sides in a case, the process might go faster.

Richardson agreed adding an employee to screen cases to ensure they’re moving through the court system might help. The employee would not set bonds, which would remain the judges’ responsibility.

The commissioners took no action this week, but they say they’re looking at a variety of solutions to free up space at the jail.

Having suggestions and information from the judges will help the commissioners navigate toward a solution, said county commissioner Brad Armstrong.

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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.