GREENFIELD — She slumps down in a chair in the cell block’s common area, friends crowded around as she tells the story of how she got here. The air in the room grows thinner as some 45 women move around the room built for 20.
Police picked up Angela Spiker in early August, accusing her of shoplifting about $40 of merchandise from a local store. What would have been a misdemeanor was elevated to a felony because of prior offenses, leading to a $2,000 bond the New Palestine native says she can’t afford.
And so she sits, taking up a bed in an overcrowded facility as she awaits word on her request to have her bond reduced. She won’t go before a judge for another month.
Officials said cases like Spiker’s illustrate a problem with the state’s bond system, prompting at least one local judge to allow defendants who come before his bench on nonviolent offenses to await their trial dates at home — instead of at the county jail.
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The practice aligns with newly released state guidelines being piloted in nine Indiana counties, where judges have been ordered to release offenders without bond, provided they aren’t a flight or public safety risk.
That mandate goes statewide in 2018, but Hancock Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver said in his courtroom, the changes will be effective as soon as possible.
In Hancock County, officials hope the new guidelines could alleviate overcrowding in the local facility as officials weigh whether they’ll need to build a new jail to accommodate the burgeoning population.
More than half of the 193 inmates held in the Hancock County Jail on Wednesday were awaiting trial. Of those 120 detainees, about 84 percent were eligible for release.
A third of the inmates could leave jail if they paid a bond of $1,000 or less, jail records show.
Culver spent three days this week at a state judges’ conference, where he expected the Supreme Court ruling to be a hot topic. One answer he’s seeking about the ruling is how judges determine whether an arrestee is a flight or public safety risk, he said.
Culver already uses his own system to determine whether an inmate should be held on a low or high bond for the charge they face, he said. He asks not only if they’re a danger to others but to themselves — as is the case with some defendants addicted to drugs — and whether it’s likely they’ll flee the county if they’re freed from jail.
“This is a very important decision,” Culver said. “It will have a practical effect immediately.”
What remains unclear is whether the high court will develop a formal risk-assessment tool, he added.
The ruling, released last week, stated the purpose of setting bond is to increase the likelihood a defendant will return to court, while protecting the public and the presumption of innocence.
The high court ruled the prompt release of arrestees who do not pose a risk to public safety eliminates unnecessary expenses incurred by housing pretrial detainees at local jails.
The Supreme Court’s ruling signifies the high court judges believe bonds across the state are being set too high, Culver said. But he doesn’t believe bond in Hancock County, which for inmates jailed Wednesday ranged from $250 to $250,000, is too high for the majority of inmates to pay.
Culver speculates many of those sitting in the jail on bonds plan to accept a plea agreement and could be sentenced to prison, but they know they’ll receive credit for the time they spend in jail, lessening their sentence. In some cases, defendants avoid prison time all together as a result of the time they already served in the Hancock County Jail prior to being sentenced, he said.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Craig said it’s difficult to know exactly how the new regulations will affect overcrowding at the local jail because the state did not release guidelines regarding what charges should or can be considered a public safety risk.
For example, the most common charge faced by inmates at the Hancock County Jail for the last five years has been operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Releasing accused drunk drivers would help free up space in the jail considerably, but Craig wonders if those who drink and climb behind the wheel could be considered as threatening to the community as those charged with more obviously violent crimes, like battery or assault.
Of the 186 people arrested in the past month, only 18 were charged with violent crimes, like battery or rape, which would likely be deemed a risk to the public; 130 were charged with nonviolent crimes, including drug- and alcohol-related offenses.
Depending on a judge’s ruling, those 130 arrestees could be released from jail without ponying up cash first under the new guidelines.
County officials say it’s too early to tell the effect the Supreme Court’s ruling will have on the inmate population.
Jail officials already have taken steps to alleviate overcrowding, such as agreeing to send some inmates to other, larger jails around the state and adding more beds to the local community corrections building to allow some arrestees to be housed in a lower-level security center nearby.
Craig said his only hope is those little adjustments, coupled with the new bond regulations, will work together to relieve overcrowding until officials find a permanent solution.
The guidelines raise broader questions about how the state handles people accused of crimes before they’ve been found guilty.
“We have to ask, what’s the right answer for society?” Culver said. “How many of these people should be in jail on high bonds?”
Changes to the state’s bail system might result in fewer arrestees having to post cash before they can be released from jail. The change goes into effect for Hancock County Jan. 1, 2018.
Arrestees will be required to post bond only when:
- A judge deems they’re a safety risk to the public
- A judge deems there’s a good chance this flee the county before their trial begins
- They’ve been charged with murder or treason
- They’re arrested for a probation violation
On Wednesday, 101 inmates were being held in the Hancock County Jail on bonds they had not yet posted.
Those bonds ranged from $250 to $250,000. Here’s a breakdown:
42 were being held on a bond of $1,000 or less
38 were being held on a bond between $1,001 and $5,000
6 faced bonds between $5,001 and $10,000
16 faced bonds higher than $10,000