GREENFIELD — An Indianapolis law firm has been hired to handle the legal work associated with borrowing funding to build a new county jail. Meanwhile, some county officials say they’re still weighing whether a new facility is the best option before charging ahead.
The Hancock County Board of Commissioners has approved a contract with law firm Ice Miller of Indianapolis to help county officials understand potential options for financing the project and serve as legal counsel if they move forward with a loan. The contract will cost up to $32,000.
The Hancock County Jail consistently houses more than the 157 inmates intended when it was built in the 1980s, officials say, and for months, county officials have been debating how to handle overcrowding there.
In April, consultants told the public the best plan to accommodate a growing population is to overhaul the county’s inmate housing system and build a new three-story jail — a plan estimated to cost $34 million.
The commissioners have taken the initial steps needed to borrow money to finance a new jail, but some members of the county council say they’re still considering less costly options before committing to building a new facility.
The inmate population at the jail has been growing since 2014 when state law changed, dictating low-level offenders be housed locally instead of in state prisons. The change freed up space in Indiana Department of Correction facilities but left many county jails housing more offenders than they have beds.
There isn’t enough space to meet the needs of the local criminal justice system, officials say.
This week, the Hancock County Jail was holding 190 inmates, with some sleeping on cots on the floors of the crowded cells. Another 37 were being held in the LaGrange County Jail after county officials struck a deal to transfer some of their inmates there.
And the growth is just beginning, experts say; the study suggests the jail population will grow to 438 by 2035.
Hancock County Council President Bill Bolander told the Daily Reporter he believes a new jail will eventually need to be constructed but doing so is still a few years away.
Some officials believe the county’s community corrections facility next door to the jail — used mostly for those on work-release — can be expanded to accommodate some of the jail’s overflow, he said. That might be a better option to meet the jail’s current needs than constructing a new facility right away.
Building a new jail will be costly, and officials want to weigh all options before making a final decision to move forward, he said. It’s difficult to know what the future will hold for the local criminal justice system, he said, complicating the matter even more.
“It’s a big, big undertaking,” he said. “That’s a lot of money to spend on bad guys.”
Commissioner Brad Armstrong told fellow commissioners the county council will have the final say in whether to borrow the money, but hiring the law firm starts the process. Both the commissioners and council have to be in agreement when seeking a bond, and any time a governing board seeks a loan, it must retain legal counsel to oversee the process.
Bolander said there’s no harm in hiring Ice Miller now. Should the council agree to borrowing any funding for the project, county officials will be ready.
Commissioner John Jessup said the time to start the project is now — officials can’t wait. He believes building a new jail is the only option the county has in dealing with the overcrowded facility, and he plans to keep pushing forward.
“We’re not willing to put this on the back burner,” he said. “This is going to happen.”